SIAM students unite! Report from a successful student conference

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The fifth annual Chicago Area SIAM Student Conference (CASSC) took place on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). It was a completely student-run event that is organized by the SIAM student chapter leaders from UIC, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and Northwestern University. The broad goal of the conference is to provide students involved in applied mathematics research a platform to present their work to an engaged student audience and an opportunity to expand their professional network. This year, CASSC featured twelve student talks and three plenary speakers.

The day of the conference was the first warm, sunny day of spring in Chicago. The morning session began at 9:30 AM with our first plenary speaker, Dr. Mimi Dai from UIC, who gave an old-school chalk talk on regular solutions to the Navier–Stokes equation. Following this talk were parallel sessions of student talks that encompassed topics like quantum computation using topological phases of matter (Sumit Sijher, University of Waterloo) and training algorithms for recurrent neural networks (Albert Berahas, Northwestern). After breaking for lunch, our next plenary speaker, Dr. Veena Mendiratta from Bell Labs NOKIA, gave an industry-related talk on modelling the detection rate of bugs during the testing phase in new software development. The day continued with another set of parallel student talk sessions. We learned new methods for numerically solving KdV–Burgers Equations (Mahmood Jokar, Iran University) and ways to handle non-Gaussian noise in stochastic differential equations (Hannah Albert, IIT). CASSC concluded with our final plenary speaker, Prof. Danny Abrams from Northwestern, who gave an illuminating talk on how relatively simple mathematical models can explain different societal phenomena like the dominance of right-handedness, the dying off of languages, and the dynamics of religious affiliations.

The organization of CASSC is an approximately five-month endeavor that requires a couple hours of work each week. While this is a significant commitment of time, I think that all of the organizers would agree that learning how to construct a conference such as this is an invaluable experience as we move forward in academia. We (the organizers) came to the incredibly insightful realization that the earlier one begins the planning process, the better. However, we found it interesting which aspects of the conference are most important to do first. For example, catering (for lunch and breakfast) only needed to be ordered a week prior to the event, while reserving two nearby lecture rooms on a college campus (even on a Saturday) should likely be done first. We advertised through e-mail announcement to applied-math-related departments in the Chicago Area. The event was free for all attendees, thanks to generous funding sources, including each of the three hosting schools, the National Science Foundation, and the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems. We found that funding was not very difficult to obtain, as many departments are excited to see such a student-led initiative and want to support it. With approximately 45 attendees, the cost of the conference was under $3,000. We also encountered great enthusiasm from our plenary speakers. It can be uncomfortable to ask professors and professionals to sacrifice a Saturday to attend a student event, but they were all very happy to do so.

By far, one of the most rewarding experiences as an organizer is the thanks received from the students who attended and gave talks. Many noted that this was their first opportunity to speak about their research and may be the last one prior to a thesis defense. This sentiment encapsulates the purpose of holding this annual conference. One aspect of the conference we would like to expand in future years is the involvement of undergraduate students. We expect that adding a poster session would be a great opportunity for undergraduates, who may be reluctant to give a talk. The responsibility of organizing CASSC is passed down each year to the new officers of the SIAM chapters at the three host school. The location rotates each year between the schools, so CASSC 2017 will be held at Northwestern University in the spring. Based on our experiences this year and in past years, we strongly encourage other student chapters in metropolitan areas to collaborate in organizing a similar event, as there is an incredible amount to be learned and appreciated for both attendees and organizers.

Categories: Student Feature
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