Our Stories

Our Stories

Mathematicians will share their formative undergraduate experiences and how those experiences informed the trajectories of their careers. It can be hard to imagine your future, and that makes it hard to plan for it. We hope you’ll be able to see yourself in these stories, and that seeing mathematicians who were once where you are (no, really) will help you imagine and plan for your future.

Abstracts of talks will be available under the collapsible headings below as we receive them.


Session I: Saturday, November 19, 10:30-10:50 AM US Central Time

Dr. Michelle Chu (Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota)

Michelle Chu is a Panamanian-American mathematician working in the field of geometric topology. Growing up in Panama, Dr Chu had not known any PhDs and had never considered an academic career. Thanks to a lot of support, encouragement, hard work, and great opportunities, Dr. Chu completed her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 2018 and recently became an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota -Twin Cities.

In her story, she will describe how she found her place in this math world and what she has learned along the way.

Dr. John Urschel (Junior Fellow at Harvard University)

John Urschel is a junior fellow at Harvard. Previously he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and prior to that, a PhD student in math at MIT. In 2017, Urschel was named to Forbes’ “30 under 30” list of outstanding young scientists. His research interests include numerical analysis, graph theory, and data science/machine learning.

Karuna Sangam (Graduate Student at Rutgers University)

Karuna Sangam (they/them) is a neurodivergent South Asian American PhD student at Rutgers University studying low-dimensional topology and knot theory. Originally from Cupertino, California, they received their bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Bard College, where they co-founded the Queer People of Color club. While an undergrad, they participated in summer research through an REU and studied abroad with Budapest Semesters in Mathematics. They will talk about some of the ways these experiences, as well as conferences such as LG&TBQ have helped them find community within mathematics.

In addition, Karuna will discuss their experiences with disability and illness, both during their childhood and as an adult. In their final semester of undergrad, they were diagnosed with Lyme disease, and spent the next year and a half recovering while they began graduate school. They will discuss their experiences starting grad school while physically ill and what they found helpful, as well as what they wish they’d done instead. They will also discuss the process of recovering from family- and school-based trauma as an adult.

Session II: Saturday, November 19, 4:40-5:00 PM US Central Time

Aida Alibek (Graduate Student at the University of Georgia)

Aida Alibek (she/her) is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. She is from Kazakhstan, where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math, and she first came to the USA in 2014 to pursue a PhD in mathematics with a specialization in Logic and Model Theory. However, as she faced both physical and mental health struggles during those years, Aida came to recognize that her main motivation for getting a PhD in the first place was to improve the teaching of college-level mathematics.

Now she is pursuing a PhD in Mathematics Education, an area combining both her love of math and her passion for better math education, which means she gets to combine her knowledge of mathematics content with research on teaching and learning of mathematics!  Her talk will mainly focus on her transition from being a mathematician to becoming a mathematics education researcher. She will also share the valuable lessons she learned along the way about perseverance and staying true to oneself.

Dr. Benjamin Parker (Software Research and Development Engineer at Intel)

Benjamin Quanah Parker is enrolled with the Squaxin tribe in the state of Washington, and is also Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe, Cree, and Shoshone-Bannock. Benjamin started his academic career at Dartmouth College, where he earned a B.A. in Mathematics. He then went to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to obtain his M.S. in Applied and Computational Mathematics. After taking a few years off from academia, Benjamin enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Mathematical Sciences at Portland State University (PSU). He defended his dissertation in November 2021, and is the first indigenous student to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematical Sciences at PSU. His area of research focused on algorithm development for eigenvalue problems with an application in fiber optics. Currently, Benjamin works as a Software Research and Development Engineer at Intel.

As a recent graduate, Benjamin’s talk will center on lessons he learned about navigating his academic career through self-care and staying rooted in his identity.

Christopher Havens (Program Content Director  & Co-founder of Prison Math Project)

"A Journey Into Social Productivity" is a brief story about how Christopher Havens became a mathematician despite the adversity of being in prison, and how the beauty and truth in mathematics led to a profound transformation of self-identity.In this story, social productivity is described as being a form of social interactivity which benefits the world around us.

Christopher engages in in social productivity through his enjoyment for both collaborative researches in number theory and Diophantine analysis, and also in building the community through his efforts towards inclusivity and the diversification of mathematics.

Session III: Sunday, November 20, 10:30-10:50 AM US Central Time

Brandis Whitfield (Graduate Student at Temple University)

Brandis(they/she) is a fourth-year PhD student at Temple University researching topics in geometric group theory. They are passionate about mathematics, liberation and education. 

Kate Blaine (Risk Adjustment Analyst at Excellus BCBS)

Kate Blaine earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Bard College in 2019, where she also studied music. Since graduation, she has pursued an actuarial career. She has passed four actuarial exams while working towards the ASA (Associate of the Society of Actuaries) credential, and now works as a risk analyst at a healthcare company.

Her talk will focus on how her undergraduate experiences fostered her love of learning and the math community, and helped her determine her specific interests within the world of mathematics, which ultimately led her to put off graduate school and pursue actuarial exams. She will also provide some helpful tips and resources to any students who might want to consider the actuarial path. 

Dr. Julie Vega (Teacher at Maret School)

Dr. Julianne Vega was a 6-8th grade math teacher immediately after completion of her undergraduate degree in mathematics at Susquehanna University. During that time she focused on introducing her students to college level mathematics and encouraging them to explore all areas of math. Her students' questions and her curiosity led her to a Research Experience for Teachers and, ultimately, graduate school at University of Kentucky, where she completed her PhD with the intention of returning to secondary teaching. Upon graduation, she worked as a tenure track professor at Kennesaw State University, before securing her current position at Maret School as a 9-12th grade math teacher.

During this session, she will discuss how she found and built community, maintained authenticity, and searched for career-building opportunities. 

Session IV: Sunday, November 20, 3:00-3:20 PM US Central Time

Max Hlavacek (Graduate Student at UC Berkeley)

Max Hlavacek is queer, nonbinary PhD student at UC Berkeley.  They are currently in their sixth year, studying enumerative problems in discrete geometry and spending their spare time hanging out with their cat Squid.  In this session, they will reflect on their experiences getting through their first two years of grad school while coming to terms with their gender identity, finding their place in the queer Asian American community, and struggling through various mental health issues.  Throughout, they want to reflect on the process of building and finding community in and out of their math life.  

Dr. Adrienne Sands (Mathematician at MIT Lincoln Lab) 

Adrienne is a mathematician and technical staff member at Lincoln Laboratory. She received her mathematics Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in September 2020 and joined the Laboratory immediately after graduate school. She has since transitioned from her graduate work in number theory to digital signal processing, mostly for radar applications. For the past year, she has led a team to create a radar to find survivors hidden under rubble after a natural disaster. Adrienne is the proud pup parent of her dog Bean and enjoys gaming, hiking, and fishing.

Kirin Martin (Graduate Student at Iowa State University) 

Kirin Martin (they/them) is currently pursuing their PhD in mathematics at Iowa State University, working in discrete math. They were a first-generation college student (not to mention graduate student) with a generational history of low income and mental health disorders. Alongside their studies, Kirin has coped with ADHD, as well as generalized anxiety and depression largely experienced as echoing results of ADHD struggles. Friends jest that they ‘play life on hard mode’, pursuing an advanced degree despite a disability while also growing a family — they have one 5-year-old child (and a second child due to hatch this December), whom they have been able to birth and parent during grad school thanks especially to the incredible support of their partner. Kirin is nonbinary/transgender and ace/pan/poly (though the latter tends to occupy less brainspace when interacting with the world) and has had the great fortune of being well-supported in their continuing transition over the past few years.

What they most hope to convey during this talk is the wide variety of formal assistance available for disabilities like ADHD and how to access them, the immense importance of constructing for oneself a vibrant support system, and a bit of acknowledgement that it is really okay if you don’t feel like you’ve ever got everything together all at once. Juggling is a skill, and busy-ness can be fulfilling as long as you prioritize the parts of your life that are the most valuable to you above any preconceived ideas about what others expect of you.