Saturday, September 05, 2009

an old memory: endings and beginnings.

by the time it turned august, 6 years ago, i was ready to move and start graduate school in mathematics. it was in my future. i was sure of it!

my bags and boxes were packed, fit neatly into the trunk and most of the backseat of a 4-door sedan. most of those were books, and of these, most of them i'd never read again; i didn't know how to plan very well, back then.

there was one last thing, before driving away: one last meeting with one of my profs, one last chat about ideas and research.

it had been an eventful summer for me, full of new travels. those were my first conferences; he had suggested them. i learned a lot. among other lessons, i discovered that i truly knew nothing.

sometimes i hated being right. (i had my suspicions.)

i hadn't seen that prof since may, but upon walking into his office and greeting him, that gap of time seemed utterly imagined. he asked me about finland and about utah, whom i had met there, what i thought about the kinds of analysis that i've seen.

even in that last hour, i still learned a few last intuitions. i confessed that i understood very little and asked him a handful of the things that i didn't know.

so we talked mathematics for a while.

after a while, he cautioned me: "where you're going, they're very geometric, very abstract. make sure you always know the beginnings of the theory, the motivations. always ask!"

i nodded.

a moment passed, and then he asked, "they're not going to make you take algebraιc geometry there, are they? it's not one of the required first-year courses?"

i assured him no, but i learned later that it wasn't a silly question. that would be true for half the students i'd meet in grad school, but not for me.

i had an agenda, you see.
i was determined to become an analyst.

before my ph.d.,
before i had an advisor,
i had a mentor.

there was never any formal agreement, just some unspoken understanding. he always listened, he offered before i could ask; he still does. without him, i doubt i'd have become a mathematician.

so, for those profs, postdocs, or instructors who interact often with undergrads: your mentoring matters.

it's frustrating, i imagine. undergrads, american or otherwise, aren't especially known for their professionalism.

for a few of us, though, it's made all the difference.

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