My Summer UMN REU Expierence: Researching During A Global Pandemic

Participating in an REU is a joy, but doing it during a pandemic? Here I outline what my REU experience was like during COVID-19.

What’s an REU?

A Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) is, usually, a summer paid program lasting 8-10 weeks where 8-20 students work on research problems and are guided by both graduate students and professors. Most REU’s are usually combinatorial in some nature; I suspect this is the case because most of the problems proposed only require about 1-2 weeks of background material to be introduced and usually some of that material students are familiar with.

The first 1-2 weeks of the program is mostly spent by the faculty giving lectures on the background material required to actually pursue the problem. Students are also often assigned homework problems to get warmed up for the more difficult weeks ahead. This time also accounts for introductions, and detailing the structure of the entire REU. The remaining weeks are spent attempting to make progress on the problems with the last 1-2 mainly spent on preparing a formal write up of the work and presentations for the students. There are often multiple problems proposed, usually 6-8, and students are free to choose which problems they want to work on with each student choosing between 1-3 problems.

Of course, all of this information is subject to deviation in certain instances, and it’s just an account of what you would find at a “generic” REU. You can find a list of them here every year if you are interested in applying. In my case, there were 12 students in my program, and I chose to work on 2 problems; the first was on lattice model interpretations for k-Schur functions which I worked on alone, and the second was on combinatorics of the alcove walk model with 2 other students. The purpose of this post isn’t to go into the details of my research, but if you are interested feel free to contact me!

The Setup for An Online REU

Well, I certain didn’t expect to be in a pandemic during my REU, but here’s a rundown of how the online setting differed from an in-person setting:

  • Lectures & Meetings: All meetings were moved to a zoom format. There was a specific zoom room for morning lectures and project updates, and a seperate zoom room for TA sessions and homework problems. Individual research team meetings were also held on zoom, but those were setup between team members themselves.
  • Communication: Instead of in-person discussion and email chains, we had a Slack channel for students and faculty (if you aren’t familiar with Slack, think of a more formal Discord). There were individual Slack channels for notifications, research problems, sage help, etc. This was the primary method of communication throughout the entire REU.
  • Social Gatherings: Weekly social events were moved to interactive online events planned by a different pair of reu students every week (two events were planned by faculty however). Certain social events, such as going out to dinner, were outright canceled. The morning zoom room meeting was opened 30 minutes early to allow for morning chit-chat over coffee and remained open during lunch breaks.
  • Funding: Travel funding was pulled since no one was required to travel to UMN, but all other funding was paid to the REU students. There was also a small budget addition made for students to purchase a small digital writing pad, pen, etc.

The Good

Once a week during the program, a subset of graduate students held professional development sessions for the students of the program. These sessions were interactive meetings where graduate students either discussed an important issue in graduate school or brought in a panel. Some of the more memorable sessions were on imposter syndrome, racism and sexism in math departments, how to apply to graduate school, and job opportunities after undergraduate. These sessions were very eye opening to a lot of issues that can exist in academic departments and how to combat them. They also gave me a behind-the-curtain look at a math graduate student’s day to day experiences and how graduate life is. I’m certainly still applying to graduate school this fall, but the sessions gave me a good impression of what life is going to be like for the next 3-6 years and how I can get the most out of that time.

Graduate students also hosted a summer student representation theory seminar once a week for the duration of the summer. Speaking was open to both graduate students and REU students, which I thought was a great idea to help REU students get some more presentation practice. The UMN runs an REU every year, so this seminar usually accompanies it, and I was very happy to see it continue despite moving things online. The seminar started with some introductory talks on representation theory to get REU students more familiar with the theory, and the later talks delved into more research based work. The seminar took place during lunch break on Tuesdays, so it also helped promote some socialization between the students and faculty of the REU.

The Bad

Despite best efforts, the social factor of the REU was quite unsuccessful. None of the REU students were living together during the program, or had much time to interact outside of a professional setting. Socialization is something that I think is hard to recreate online especially between undergraduates who don’t know each other. During official REU program hours, the students were on zoom for at least 2-3 hours a day, and that just about reduces wanting to interact online further to zero. Weekly social events were held, but this amounted to nothing more than playing pictionary, one night  werewolf, or some other online game. Outside of these events, there wasn’t much social interaction between students. This is something that I found very disappointing. From speaking with past REU students, a big part of these programs is to promote community building between budding mathematicians, and I was excited to be a part of this process. Unfortunately, it just never came to fruition because there was no in-person interaction. As a result, I don’t think many lasting relationships were made (if any at all).

The Ugly

Communicating mathematics effectively is a necessary skill for pursuing research. Unfortunately, communicating mathematics over Zoom can be ugly. There’s no ease of just moving to a room with a whiteboard that one has in an in-person setting. Most students or faculty had some sort of tablet or online writing device which made it a little easier to draw pictures or write out ideas. Still, if the internet was bad or the device was old it was a fairly inefficient process compared to writing on paper or a blackboard. For those people who didn’t have one of these devices, there was an additional stipend provided, but this was decided about halfway through the program. Even then, one still has to go through the technical process of screen sharing on Zoom to actually see what someone is trying to communicate and this was a mess at best if someone else was hosting the room. It was usually a suboptimal situation, and ended up wasting a lot of time to figure out the technical details.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite the last minute changes due to COVID-19, the REU was very successful. I was able to learn a tremendous amount of mathematics in a short time, improve my communication skills in research, and ended up proving some interesting results. I also strengthened relationships with graduate students and faculty at the UMN which is helping a lot with my applications to PhD programs. Given the opportunity to participate in another REU, I would (even in another global pandemic). However, I’d work a lot harder to build lasting relationships with my peers. These relationships open doors on both sides leading to long lasting friends and good discussion, and this is priceless.

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