Monday, December 22, 2014

Undergraduate Research

I just received the Cornell Math Matters, dedicated to the memory of  Eugene Dynkin who passed away on November 14 at the age of 90. In my freshman year at Cornell, Dynkin recruited me into his undergraduate research seminar building on the success he had with a similar seminar he ran when in Russia. I didn't last long, making the conscious choice not to work on research as an undergrad but to focus on enjoying the college experience. I missed out on a great opportunity but I don't regret that decision.

Reluctantly I wouldn't give that advice to today's undergrads. Getting into a good graduate program has become much more competitive and even a small amount of research experience may make a large difference in your application. I encourage any undergrad who may consider a PhD in their future to talk to some professors and get started in a research program. But don't let it run your life, make sure you enjoy your time at college. You'll have plenty of time to spend every waking moment on research once you start graduate school.


  1. it's horrible to say students have to "spend every waking moment on research" in graduate school. That's a formula for crashing and burning. If you aren't giving yourself down time, you are inviting disaster. Also, you'll need to take classes and might work as a teaching assistant for part of your years. It's not all research all the time.

  2. ------
    Lance Fortnow advises  "Spend every waking moment on research once you start graduate school."

    Good advice  As befits a Chair at a major research university, Lance's advice is well-founded in game-theory. This week's article by Kyle Silera, Kirby Leeb, and Lisa Beroc, "Measuring the effectiveness of scientific gatekeeping" (PNAS 2014) strongly supports the conventional wisdom that elite gatekeepers perform no better than chance at identifying

    • elite research articles, and
    • elite research proposals, and
    • elite research students.

    Optimal STEAM career strategies  In view of the multi-decade secular declines in constant-dollar per-capita research funding (in North America at least), it follows that the optimal career strategy for individual STEM students is precisely the saturation-strategy that Lance advocates:

    • produce a maximal number of publications, upon
    • maximally trendy topics, with
    • maximally prestigious coauthors, from
    • maximally prestigious institutions.

    Obviously, this widely-embraced strategy mitigates the short-term incapacity of gatekeepers to assess quality.

    Broader perspectives  Still it can happen that optimal strategies change as disciplines and societies evolve, and that globally optimal STEAM-strategies differ sharply from individually optimal STEAM-strategies, and so it is well for younger STEAM students (especially) to be aware of alternative value-systems and career-strategies, that exemplify (for example) Vladimir Arnol'd's favorite poem:

    A Hog under an Oak
    (by I. A. Krylov)

    A Hog under a mighty Oak
    Had glutted tons of tasty acorns, then, supine,
    Napped in its shade; but when awoke,
    He, with persistence and the snoot of real swine,
    The giant's roots began to undermine.

    "The tree is hurt when they're exposed."
    A Raven on a branch arose.
    "It may dry up and perish -- don't you care?"

    "Not in the least!" The Hog raised up its head.
    "Why would the prospect make me scared?
    The tree is useless; be it dead
    Two hundred fifty years, I won't regret a second.
    Nutritious acorns -- only that's what's reckoned!"

    "Ungrateful pig!" the tree exclaimed with scorn.
    "Had you been fit to turn your mug around
    You'd have a chance to figure out
    Where your beloved fruit is born."

    An ignoramus, likewise, in defiance
    Is scolding scientists and science,
    And all preprints at lanl_dot_gov,
    Oblivious of his partaking fruit thereof.

    Kudos  Kudos to (UC Berkeley student) Elysee Wilson-Egolf for this apt translation! Appended are some references — all by STEAM-women, as it happens — that reflect this broader, larger, more globally optimistic view of the 21st century STEAM enterprise.

    Best wishes  Best wishes for a happy and STEAM-y New Year are extended to all readers of Computational Complexity!


    @book{cite-label, Title = {Alix's
    Journal}, Author = {Alix Cl\'eo
    Roubaud}, Editor = {Jacques Roubaud},
    Note = {posthumously edited by Alix's
    husband J.~R.}, Publisher = {Dalkey
    Archive Press}, Series = {French
    Literature Series}, Year = {2010},
    Keywords = {oulipo;ouxpo;ouhippo,oujopo}}

    @book{cite-label, Title = {Archangel},
    Author = {Barrett, A.}, Publisher =
    {W. W. Norton}, Year = {2013}, Keywords =

    @book{cite-label, Title = {The Goddess
    of Small Victories}, Author = {Yannick
    Grannec}, Publisher = {Other Press},
    Year = {2014},Keywords = {oulipo;ouxpo;

    @incollection{cite-label, Title =
    {Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl}, Author =
    {Kathleen Ann Goonan}, Booktitle =
    {Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a
    Better Future}, Editor = {Finn, Ed and
    Cramer, Karen}, Pages = {38--73},
    Publisher = {HarperCollins}, Year =
    {2014},Keywords = {oulipo;ouxpo;

    1. As a further remark (with further citations), gender roles in STEAM communities were one focus of last week's (now-closed) thread on Shtetl Optimized. This thread was titled "Walter Lewin", and commenters broadened its domain to encompass (as Scott said) "essentially all aspects of the human condition".

      The following comment — which was posted too late to appear on Scott's now-closed thread — references Roberto Unger's "A Letter to Young People". As it seems to me, Unger's advice offers a substantially broadened context for appreciating Lance Fortnow's advice. Unger's context will have particular interest to young researchers (women especially) who hope to achieve personal growth without undo personal trauma (as Unger envisions), even in the ultra-competitive market-efficient world of STEAM, that Lance's post so vividly (yet distressingly?) portrays.

      Note  Israel Joshua Singer’s novel Yoshe Kalb (1933), which appears in the list of references, was commended by the anonymous Shtetl Optimized commenter "Amy" as a worthy novel about "the edel and the coarse" (in Amy's comment #557). But please let me say explicitly, that Amy's not me … I just happen to admire Amy's ideas and her choice of literature citations.

      Lou Scheffer opines (as Shtetl Optimized comment #582)  "At the very least, I would be unsurprised to find Dorothy a male. I would be quite surprised to find this of Amy."

      Humility  I think many folks (including me) would agree. Still, a considerable degree of humility is in order. History records plenty of instances of women writing as and about men through entire careers (and vice versa). A celebrated example is the scientist Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree Jr.

      "[Tiptree's work is] proof of what she said, that men and women can and do speak both to and for one another, if they have bothered to learn how."
            — Ursula K. Le Guin
      Good on `yah, Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree!

      Trauma  A recurring theme of Sheldon/Tiptree's work is the difficulty of personal growth without personal trauma. This same point is made, albeit more dryly and analytically, by Robert Unger in his video essay "Beyond The Small Life: A Letter to Young People", and in Unger's recent well-regarded (by me anyway!) book with cosmologist Lee Smolin, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (2014).

      "By ceasing to belittle, we cease to be little."
            — Roberto Mangabeira Unger

      Hope  All of these works are (as it seems to me) worthy of consideration by STEAM researchers … young ones especially.

      Because it's considerably easier and more effective to learn these lessons through a shared hopeful literature, than through embittering personal trauma.

      Best wishes for personal growth without personal trauma are extended to all Computational Complexity readers!


      @book{cite-key, Author =
      {Phillips, J.}, Publisher =
      {Picador}, Title = {James Tiptree,
      Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B.
      Sheldon}, Year = {2007}}

      @book{cite-key, Author = {Unger,
      R.\ M. and Smolin, L.}, Publisher =
      {Cambridge University Press}, Title
      = {The Singular Universe and the
      Reality of Time}, Year = {2014}}

      @book{singer1933yoshe, Author =
      {Israel Joshua Singer}, Publisher =
      {Lancer Books}, Title = {Yoshe Kalb},
      Year = {1933}}

    2. Closing notes

      It's surprising (to me) that Lance's essay portray has inspired little discussion of the 21st century STEAM literature … indeed in the comments there has been no discussion of this literature at all.

      Fernando Pessoa's tough-to-read Book of Disquiet vividly portrays the consequences of passive acceptance of gatekeeper-directed career-strategies

      'We weary of everything, except understanding' … and so we fall into the passive state in which we want to understand only the explanation of what is being proposed."
         Book of Disquiet
         Fernando Pessoa

      Many of Pessoa's ideas are accessibly fleshed-out in the science-respecting STEAM-friendly literature of authors like Laurie King (Pirate King, 2012) and Elizabeth Gilbert(The Signature of All Things, 2013); these works provide a more fully human aspect to STEM-legends that include both historical figures like Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin (in Gilbert's work) and fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes and Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms (in King's work).

      These authors have begun a marvelous (at it seems to me) 21st century STEAM-humanizing process that is (thankfully) very far from finished. In particular, we can look to younger workers like Vi Hart and Nicky Case (Parable of the Polygons) and Laura Shigihara (Cube Land) for continued inspirational broadening of our collective STEAM-understanding.

      Best wishes to everyone for broad-band STEAM-cognition, in regard to the issues that Lance's essay raises!

      @book{cite-key, Title = {The
      Signature of All Things}, Author =
      {Elizabeth Gilbert}, Publisher =
      {Penguin}, Year = {2013}}

      @book{cite-key, Title = {Pirate
      King}, Author = {Laurie R. King},
      Publisher = {Random House}, Series
      = {Mary Russell and Sherlock
      Holmes Series}, Year = {2012}}

      @misc{cite-key, Title = {Cube Land},
      Author = {Laura Shigihara}, Note =
      7F0qhq7-K08}}, Year = {2012}}

      @misc{cite-key, Title = {Parable of the
      Polygons}, Author = {Vi Hart and Nicky
      Case}, Note =
      polygons}}, Year = {2014}}