SIAM News Blog

What If You Could Spend an Hour with Anyone in Your Field . . .

By Tasso Kaper

A SIAM tradition was born at AN12 in Minneapolis. A group of student members and plenary speakers spent two hours in an informal, conversational-style session, held as part of the meeting’s Student Days. The session’s main goal was to give students the opportunity to ask questions of plenary speakers in a relaxed and unintimidating setting, and this goal was amply met.

Among the 24 students were several undergraduates and representatives from SIAM student chapters. Split into two circles, each group of students engaged in conversation with four plenary speakers. Students asked about the topics of the speakers’ talks, and also requested advice on course selection, adviser selection, and postgraduate career options, among other concerns.

How do you keep up with the literature in your area? If your research is interdisciplinary, how do you learn about the other field? These and other questions came up in an informal session held for the first time at the SIAM Annual Meeting in Minneapolis. Small groups of students got together with some of the meeting’s invited speakers, who answered questions about their talks, research, careers, and other professional concerns. Shown here in one of the two circles is moderator Tasso Kaper (back to the camera) and speakers George Papanicolaou, Tony Chan, Gunnar Carlsson, and John Ball. Photo by Susan Whitehouse.

Giving generously of their time, participating plenary speakers and prize lecturers John Ball, Gunnar Carlsson, Tony Chan, Barbara Keyfitz, Claude LeBris, George Papanicolaou, Emily Shuckburgh, and Valeria Simoncini also shared insights about their scientific interests, their decisions about types of research questions to pursue, and their career choices. The speakers, in turn, questioned the students: how they first got interested in mathematics and what aspects of mathematics and its applications interest them the most. At times, the plenary speakers even asked questions of each other, in exchanges that were enlightening for all.

The demand for an event of this type was high, as forecast by input from focus group sessions run at earlier meetings by SIAM membership manager Susan Whitehouse. The conversations in both circles flowed non-stop for the full two hours, with the plenary speakers switching circles at the end of the first hour, so that each student got to meet both groups of four speakers. Meeting co-organizers Michele Benzi and Tasso Kaper got the conversations going, but after that had little work to do as moderators. Participants of all ages appeared to enjoy this lively event, and many of the students commented afterward how useful and interesting it was.

Tasso Kaper is a professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Boston University.

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