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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

I can haz conference?

This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I attended the eighth annual Combinatorial Algebra meets Algebraic Combinatorics Conference. No, I didn't record awesome video diaries as I did when I attended the 2010 Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference. I did meet many experts in these fields, listened to interesting talks that I didn't really understand, and gave a talk of my own!

Combinatorial algebra and algebraic combinatorics are, as the conference's title and purpose expresses, two sides of the same mathematical coin. They are areas of mathematics that combine techniques from combinatorics and abstract algebra (notably, commutative algebra) to solve a variety of problems in algebra, combinatorics, and even algebraic geometry. Now, these fields are specialized. I got the impression that even among the thirty or so graduate students, postdocs, and professors in attendance, many of them were struggling to keep up with some of the talks, because the topics in this area, as with any specialized field, can get pretty esoteric. One fellow gave a talk on cluster algebras, and the room was rather silent when it came time for questions.

Still, it was exciting to attend the conference even though I, as an undergraduate student with only two courses of basic abstract algebra under my belt, understood very little of any of the talks. I was invited to speak at the conference by Adam Van Tuyl, chair of our mathematics department and one of the conference organizers. He supervised my summer NSERC USRA. I previously gave a talk about that research in the fall, and he felt it would be a good fit for the conference. I was a little sceptical, not to mention a little intimidated by the notion of talking in front of all these learned academics. Nevertheless, I acquiesced--I mean, that opportunity might not come again. I'm getting a lot of mileage out of this talk.

If you are interested, I've set up a page explaining my research on the spreading and covering numbers. Unless you are familiar with abstract algebra or graph theory, most of it will sound like gibberish, but check it out any way. You can also download a copy of the talk I gave, as well as the Macaulay2 code I wrote.

Giving my talk, which was well-received, was one of the high points of the conference, of course. For one thing, I'm pretty sure everyone there followed what I was talking about, since I was presenting it on a more elementary level than a postdoc or professor would. And that's fine. More importantly, a few of the attendees had some interesting ideas that might help me in the future. I am currently applying for another NSERC grant to continue working on this project this summer; hopefully I'll get the grant and be able to put some of those ideas into practice. If anything, going to the conference has made me more excited about working on this problem again.

Another high point was meeting Tony Geramita. He co-authored the paper that introduces the spreading and covering numbers, essentially making him the originator of what I studied. And he knows his stuff; he seemed to switch gears effortlessly between each talk and ask intelligent questions (or at least, from my limited understanding of the topics, they seemed intelligent) whenever he needed clarification. So meeting him, and giving a talk about these spreading and covering numbers in front of him, was kind of a big deal. Plus, my natural tendency toward introversion means it takes me a while to warm up to new people, especially ones whom I meet in an artificial, arranged way like this.

So imagine my surprise and amusement when, at lunch, I brought out my copy of Forest Mage, and he said, "Ah, you're reading Robin Hobb." From there we conversed about our mutual love of science fiction and fantasy. Later, we started talking about eBooks, and he spontaneously asked if I had a thumb drive on me so he could give me a 1 GB library of eBooks he has on his computer. I was somewhat taken aback by this random and generous windfall. (I used my phone, since it had 11 GB free on its internal SD card. I should probably get an external one too.) This unforeseen icebreaker made it easier for me to think of him as a person, not just a Smart Math Individual, and much easier to give my talk.

Saturday night, after the conference, we went to the Masala Grille for dinner. Although my dad and I have ordered takeout from this Indian restaurant in the past, I had never actually been there to eat, so that was an interesting new experience. We had the upper room to ourselves, and the food was good (although I made the mistake of putting too much sauce on my plate). I had some interesting conversation with the people at my table about a variety of things, mathematics and non-mathematics alike, including an opportunity to talk to an Iranian fellow who is at Dalhousie for the summer. This was his first trip outside of Iran, and it was cool to hear about the situation in that country from someone who has grown up and lived there.

All in all, I have to admit the conference was a great experience, even though it did have people at it and did not in fact consist of me sitting in a chair reading a book all weekend. Sacrifices had to be made, and they were worth it! But don't think this means I'm going to grad school just yet, despite the fact that more-than-hints have started to drop! But that is another topic for another blog post. Now I have to concentrate on finishing the rough draft of my honours thesis, for it is due on Thursday.