Union hosts annual math conference

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On Saturday, April 11, 2015, Union hosted the 22nd Annual Hudson River Undergraduate Mathematics Conference. The conference was a daylong event featuring short talks by undergraduate students and faculty from New York and across New England.

The conference venue is usually rotated between the four founding institutions — Union, Siena College, Skidmore College and Williams College — on alternate years. It is held at other participating institutions during the years in between.

This year was the fourth time that Union has hosted HRUMC. The last time Union played host to the conference was six years ago.

There were about 100 talks across three parallel sessions delivered by a mix of students and faculty from 30 institutions. Topics ranged from the serious and strictly math-themed to out-of-box topics that even connected to media or military science.

At 11:00 a.m., President Stephen Ainlay delivered welcoming remarks in Memorial Chapel. Megan Jenkins ’15 and Tristan Johnson ’16 then introduced keynote speaker Ronald Rivest.

Rivest developed the RSA cryptosystem — the “R” in RSA stands for Rivest. The development of the RSA cryptosystem has led to the transformation of cryptography into a widely studied academic field.

Rivest’s discoveries are also taught in number theory classes. His local appeal, having grown up in Niskayuna, and professional reputation made Rivest the Steering Committee’s first choice of keynote speaker.

Senior Lecturer of Mathematics Paul Friedman described Rivest as a “well-known entity and a world-class speaker.”

His involvement in the dramatic developments in the field of cryptography was a theme that resonated throughout the lecture.

HRUMC talks allow students to “learn more math that they have not been exposed to and to continue to make them feel excited about mathematics,” said Friedman. HRUMC is comparable to a “Steinmetz Symposium, except it is for math majors,” Friedman continued.

Student talks are often the most anticipated aspect of the day for students and faculty alike, and are crucial to HRUMC being a successful conference. “Students usually come out of these conferences blown away, super excited and impressed,” remarked Friedman.

Students’ anticipation and enthusiasm were palpable.

Frank Rocco ’17 was among the seven Union students who presented at the conference. Rocco presented on geometric shapes, known as Steinmetz Solids. Rocco spent weeks working on his project and “felt extremely proud.” Rocco added, “I hope to further develop my presentation skills and gain experience with articulating mathematical concepts to others. I think that it will be valuable experience to have for when I begin my senior thesis and it’s exciting to interact with an audience that appreciates math in general.”

Johnson presented on invariant theory, which he first started studying his sophomore year at Union. His idea was first conceptualized when he came to Professor of Mathematics Christina Tonnessen-Friedman with the idea of studying projective geometry. From there, the project evolved into studying polynomials using projective space.

Johnson was excited about his project, and stated, “I liked the idea of fundamentals and thinking about why we study what we study.” He added, “I used what I know about this topic to explore why mathematicians look at showing how to find a solution or simply whether a solution exists for a given problem.”

Johnson said that the conference will take his undergraduate mathematical career full circle.

“These independent studies are expository research and are the best that you can do, because as an undergraduate, it is very difficult to find new ideas in mathematics without being very specialized in a particular field,” said Johnson. Johnson would like to continue to research his topic further in the future while pursuing a doctorate.

The local Steering Committee for the conference was led by Friedman, also consisting of Assistant Professors of Mathematics Jeff Jauregui, Leila Khatami and Jue Wang. William D. Williams Professor of Mathematics William Zwicker sits on the more general HRUMC Committee with representatives from other participating schools.

Three student representatives — Nathaniel Hawthorne ’16, Megan Jenkins and Tristan Johnson — sat on the local Steering Committee, as well.

The student co-chairs were full members of the Steering Committee and were also responsible for coordinating volunteers; designing advertising and art materials, such as T-shirts and the program; and planning the introduction of the keynote speaker.

According to Wang, each of the committee members was also delegated a different task, which involved coordinating with Dining Services, Facilities Services, the Office of Special Events and Conferences or ITS.

Two of the three co-chairs of the Steering Committee, as well as many of the 20 student volunteers, are also active participants in Union’s Math Club. Frank Rocco, who succeeded Jenkins and Hawthorne as the president of the Math Club, spoke of the relevance of the Math Club in preparations for the conference. “Overall, it’s a great way for Math Club to get involved with the Math Department here, as both students and professors are working together to have a successful conference,” said Rocco.

When HRUMC was originally conceived in 1994 by faculty from four founding institutions — William Zwicker of Union, David Vella of Skidmore, Emilie Kenny of Siena and Frank Morgan of Williams — it became the first undergraduate mathematics conference, bringing students and faculty together to present their research in a professional format.

Since then, the conference has grown in reputation and has become a model for similar mathematics conferences across the country, according to Friedman.

Zwicker first noticed the need for such a conference. Zwicker compared the division between students and faculty at conferences prior to HRUMC’s inception as if “student talks were separated out in their own ghetto.”

By bringing these factions together into one cohesive group, the conference aimed to make undergraduates feel welcomed as a part of the professional mathematics community. Zwicker said, “Many colleges have only a few math majors. This conference helps undergraduate presenters reach out to other math majors.”

Friedman echoed Zwicker’s sentiments. As Union only produces around 20 math majors per year, the conference can make students “realize they are a part of a larger community and … make undergraduates feel more welcomed in the math community,” said Friedman.

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