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Reflections: Advanced maths and basic gymnastics: staying connected and agile

Dr Jessica Fintzen is a Junior Research Fellow in Mathematics at Trinity and Postdoctoral Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan. With the lockdown postponing events, Dr Fintzen initiated and is co-organising the first Cross Atlantic Representation Theory and Other Topics ONline (CARTOON) conference, 29-31 May 2020, for mathematicians around the world.

Here she talks about why events like CARTOON are vital for the mathematics community and how she is spending her time at Trinity during lockdown, including an unusual pastime, at least for a Trinity Fellow.

Dr Jessica Fintzen

Why did you organise the CARTOON conference?

A lot of conferences scheduled for this time had to be cancelled due to lockdowns, so I decided to organize an online conference to bring mathematicians who are stuck at home together, at least virtually. In particular, young mathematicians suffer a lot from being unable to attend conferences. These events allow them to join the international mathematics community, to network and present their work, often their first results in their mathematical career, which might be very helpful before applying for academic positions.

Therefore in CARTOON most talks will be given by young mathematicians who submitted an application to present their work and we also scheduled a plethora of social events. In addition we will host two panels, and we’re delighted that the President of the American Mathematical Society, Jill Pipher, and Trinity Fellow, Sir Tim Gowers, are among our excellent panellists with a wide range of expertise.

Who can take part?                                                                                                       

CARTOON is open to anyone interested and it is free to register. While the intended audience is graduate students to established academics, we are flexible! A lot of graduate students and even some advanced undergraduates have signed up. Half of our speakers are PhD students. So far more than 250 people are registered and we expect more in the next two days.

Why is it important for mathematicians around the world to connect?

Mathematics is a very collaborative subject. Conferences allow participants to learn about new developments, present their results and, often more importantly, to share ideas and find new collaborators, and of course to network. The latter aspects are difficult to achieve in an online conference and thus we have put a significant amount of work into planning virtual social events during CARTOON.

What will you discuss at CARTOON?

The scientific theme is representation theory and related areas. For non-mathematicians, the idea of representation theory is to study abstract algebraic objects, for example the symmetries of a cube or of a crystal, using matrices. Representation theory is a very active research area that has many connections with other areas including number theory, the study of prime numbers, which some of our speakers are going to talk about.

However, given that we expect a much higher number of participants than during an in-person conference, the talks are supposed to be slightly more general than usual. In addition we have two panel discussions addressing pertinent issues around the coronavirus pandemic: a ‘local’ panel about how individuals are dealing with the pandemic, and a ‘global’ panel about the challenges that the mathematics community might face in the future.

How did you come to be in Cambridge?                                                                                                                                                                                 

In Fall 2015, in the final year of grad school at Harvard, I applied for a Title A Fellowship at Trinity. To be honest, I didn’t expect to be successful as colleagues told me that it was very competitive. So it was a great surprise and a big honour to be offered a Title A Fellowship, which I was very excited to accept. After spending a year at the University of Michigan and a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to attend a special programme, I finally arrived in Cambridge. I am truly enjoying my time at Trinity. Being a Fellow of the College is a very special present that I am extremely grateful for.

Not many Fellows do back handsprings on Trinity’s lawn. How long have you been a gymnast?

Almost my whole life, except for a few years every now and then when I didn’t have access to a gymnastics gym. I did gymnastics only at a recreational level and for fun. I believe that’s why I am still doing it. Professional female gymnasts usually end their career in their early 20s. When I was in Michigan and practised with the undergrads they were astonished that I am still doing gymnastics being ‘so old’.

I usually train in the Cambridge Gymnastics Academy Gym or sometimes at the less well-equipped University gym. I don’t think this option will resume for a while and so for now I am trying to stay fit by doing body weight exercises in my room and some basic gymnastics in Nevile’s Court. Though the grass is not as soft as it looks!

Is there a connection between gymnastics and mathematical ability?

There is no direct connection, but both require dedication, hard work, discipline and perseverance, even when it’s difficult. And both are a lot of fun! Gymnastics, and sport in general, also helps me to free my mind when I am stuck with a maths problem. When you do gymnastics, you cannot focus on maths at the same time, so you let go and then come to back to maths later with a fresh mind.

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