ICIAM 2011: ICIAM: Impressions of a Grad Student

November 15, 2011

Snapshot of the poster session. The author is standing in the back, with the spectacular view of North Vancouver as a backdrop.
Olga Trichtchenko

Before describing my impression of the largest conference I have ever attended, let me introduce myself. I am currently finishing my second year in the applied mathematics PhD program at the University of Washington, which means I am far enough along that my adviser, Bernard Deconinck, is not afraid to send me to conferences. Going to Vancouver is especially convenient for me, not only because it is nearby but also because I lived there while finishing my master's thesis at Simon Fraser University. Nilima Nigam, my adviser, had moved to SFU from McGill University, where I was a student before moving to UW. While remaining a McGill student, I was adopted with open arms by the SFU department. This all sounds complicated, but the experience helped me network and learn about the research done at different universities. This in turn helped me figure out where I wanted to be after I finished my master's degree.

I heard about the International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics from my adviser, and my application to present a poster was accepted. Having lived in Vancouver for over a year, I had no trouble finding a cheap place to stay--I crashed on a friend's couch. Also, being familiar with the city meant I could recommend places to eat and visit to others.

Once at the conference, I tried to attend as many talks as possible. It was a bit hard to go to talks from 8:30 A.M. until 9 P.M., so I took breaks to clear my head and re-energize, occasionally giving in and taking a nap. Choosing which talks to go to was tricky, as the number of them was astounding. Sometimes I was guided by having some knowledge of the topic, other times purely by interest.

One factor that influenced my decisions about plenary lectures was familiarity with the names of the speakers and their work. At the University of Washington, we host the "Boeing Lectures," talks by prominent visiting applied mathematicians. We are strongly encouraged to attend these lectures and introduce ourselves to the speakers at informal student-only sessions organized by our student chapter of SIAM. One of these speakers was Philip Holmes, who happened to give one of the plenary lectures at ICIAM. His talk was impressive and very comprehensive. I cannot believe that so much goes into modelling how cockroaches move!

Other plenary lectures I attended were mostly on topics I thought I might have a chance of understanding better. Some of the talks were disappointing and some were excellent. Because the conference was so large and such a variety of people attended, some of the talks were quite general; in others, it would have been nice to have more detail.

I went to most of the sessions on integrable systems organized by my adviser (who gave a talk at one of them on periodic problems for the nonlinear Schrödinger equation), even though they were not the most relevant to my research; still, because I have been immersed in that culture, it was interesting to attend and some of what I heard might become useful down the road. Outside of that, I attended some fluid-related talks, which are more related to my research interest. (Bernard Deconinck, Katie Oliveras, and I are examining the stability of stationary solutions to the Euler equations that describe an ideal irrotational and incompressible fluid in a spatially periodic domain, incorporating the effects of surface tension, using the reformulation of the water-wave problem of Ablowitz, Fokas, and Musslimani.) I doubt that I completely understood a single talk (on any topic), but exposure to different concepts is helpful and an awareness of the literature is important.

Other talks that left a good impression were those that I randomly stumbled into. Most were concerned more with applications than with the mathematics. In some cases the speaker was someone I knew; some talks simply had enticing titles. With that said, I tried to sit in on some more technical talks too; this was useful, but in some, even the introductions were completely over my head! It was a bit hard to anticipate which talks I would get something out of---reading the slew of abstracts was nearly impossible, which is why I often tried to judge by the titles. This is where the new phone app for ICIAM came in handy. It was really convenient to add talks to my calendar, and a phone is a lot more portable than a giant book.

As for the actual physical space, the conference centre is gorgeous. The huge windows facing North Vancouver are one of the most beautiful aspects, and our poster session was held in front of them, which was slightly distracting (see the photo on page 4). The poster session was more of a learning opportunity for me than I expected. Attendees at the conference were from such varied backgrounds that I had to be able to give a clear explanation of my work (the title of my poster was "Stability of Gravity Waves with Surface Tension") to people from engineering, biological, or mathematical backgrounds. This helped me put my work into perspective, as well as to understand how it ties in to what other people are doing. Some people stopped by to tell me they had used similar methods for other problems or, in some cases, different methods on the same problem. Old friends, students and faculty, from previous schools or conferences came by, curious about how I was doing and what new things I had learned since moving to the University of Washington.

Outside the conference hours, I had the chance to catch up with people I know. I had lunches and dinners with faculty and students at schools I attended, as well as with colleagues from the University of Washington. The size of the conference made it a bit intimidating to meet new people, but it was good to see people I knew and strengthen ties. Overall, this conference was a great way to get to know what is happening in research areas in and outside my field, as well as a great chance to catch up with people I have met thus far in my academic career.

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