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Variety is the Spice of Life

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on August 5, 2019 - 9:44am

By Ryan Donnelly 

I began working at the University of Washington in September 2017 as a Research Associate. Before that, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Finance Institute at  ́Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). I spent a couple of years in both positions, so I think I managed to learn quite a bit about both cities, Lausanne and Seattle. Not only are the two cities very different in size (Seattle is about five times larger), but it probably comes as no surprise that there are quite a few cultural differences between the United States and Switzerland. In any case, I managed to find quite a few things to keep me occupied in both places, including a competitive baseball league across the pond.

The two departments of which I was part were also fantastic, not only as world-renowned research institutions, but also with respect to the colleagues I had. Both groups had different ways of frequently bringing people together outside of strictly academic environment. In Amath at UW, the biweekly tea time allowed everyone to socialize over snacks. At EPFL, the department was small enough that everyone would regularly go to lunch together as a group. Both activities allowed faculty and staff to keep up to date with the ongoings of the department, sometimes serving as impromptu mini staff meetings.

But there was one aspect of working at Amath which would often spice up my week to week experiences, and it comes from the fact that there are so many different things going on in the department from different research perspectives. While my previous department at EPFL had no shortage of academic visitors and events, it was a smaller department with an exclusive focus on finance. This resulted in more or less the same theme for all of this research activity, for example the weekly department seminar, which was always delivered by a finance professor. This is strongly contrasted by my experience in Amath, where the finance research represents a relatively small proportion of the whole department. A seminar on mathematical finance is certainly more relevant to my own research, but it was very refreshing to be able to listen to talks about several different topics. In my time there, I remember hearing about neurological models, robotics, physics, disease modeling, mathematics education, and much more. Each of the talks I attended felt like a break from my typical routine, but was still intellectually engaging.

Of particular note were the Boeing Distinguished Colloquia, a series hosted by Amath with talks given by highly regarded professors. In my mind, these talks were generally of two types. Either a specific line of work or project was highlighted and explored in detail, or the speaker gave a summary of much of their work through their career, sampling from several different projects. In either case, the lectures are designed to be accessible to a general mathematically inclined audience and are open to the public.

The presence of a large variety of research interests in the department was probably one of my favorite differences in my experience at Amath compared to EPFL. I would encourage anyone that is research focused at the department, especially other postdocs or PhD students, to occasionally take a step away from their own line of work and explore what else is going on down the hall. Burnout is real, but a breath of fresh air can make the research grind feel a lot less monotonous.

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