Berkeley Connect Math students learn about their professors’ paths to Berkeley

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In class, students rarely learn about where their professors came from or what they are working on now. Berkeley Connect Math hosted a special panel at which students could ask professors about anything–from their own personal journey to their current research. Invited to speak were Professors Jenny Harrison, Theodore Slaman, and Antonio Montalbán (who also moderated). Both Professor Slaman and Montalbán study mathematical logic, while Professor Harrison currently focuses on category theory and mathematical physics.

Professor Harrison revealed that it took her some time to discover that she loved mathematics. She studied music at the University of Alabama before becoming a Marshall scholar and traveling to England, where she eventually earned her Ph.D in mathematics. “I always loved math, even in high school – but I didn’t know what I could do with it,” she admitted. “I only knew that I loved composing, and so I studied music. But at some point, I realized I didn’t want to do scales my entire life and that I would eventually be bored. That’s why I chose math – because it’s never boring! I’ve never regretted that choice.”

She went on to note that she had only taken very basic math courses when she first decided to be a mathematician. When asked by a student how she succeeded despite her lack of a math background, she credited having a good mentor who inspired her to think outside the box. “He told me, ‘You have the advantage of having a creative mind and won’t be encumbered by the ways it’s been done in the past,’ and that has stuck with me.”

It took Professor Slaman some time, as well, before he decided he wanted to study math. He began his undergraduate career as a pre-med student, a decision influenced by his father, but soon switched to physics. But that, too, didn’t stick. “I found myself drifting towards the math part of physics,” he said. “I worked at a lab, and I found it constraining. I just wanted to think, and I enjoyed the freedom math gave me.” Professor Montalbán agreed. He had considered physics, computer science, and mathematics when he first came to college and eventually found that he enjoyed math best. “I definitely understand what you mean about the freedom.”

Students also had questions about the professors’ experiences as teachers. “Teaching is a big part of academic life,” the professors said. “One of the best part of being a professor are the people you meet.”

“It’s amazing to be able to help a  struggling student and watch them as they suddenly understand,” Professor Harrison added. “We all know what it feels like to not know. But the moment students do understand, it shows on their faces – like a lightbulb suddenly went on. It’s really rewarding to see that.”

Other students were interested in their research, and the professors encouraged the students to do their own research. “Every time you do a problem that you don’t know, that’s research,” Professor Slaman said. “That’s true – although it feels different when you are trying to solve a problem that no one knows the answer to,” Professor Montalbán added. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

Professor Slaman’s advice for preparing for graduate research? “Every time you learn the proof behind a theorem, think about whether each hypothesis is necessary,” he said. “When you do that, you are investigating the nature of mathematics.”

The professors also encouraged students to find mentors among their faculty. Berkeley Connect is a good place to start!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant