By Jason Bramburger
This year has been hard on everyone, be it physically, mentally, or financially. I’ve been impressed by the way the UW AMATH community has come together to support each other in these difficult times. Like many academics, I’ve gotten used to spending my days staring at a screen for research, teaching, meetings, and everything in between. Although I was fortunate enough to spend the year working on the things I love, I’m an extrovert. My favourite parts about being a mathematician are discussing big ideas with colleagues over coffee and hashing out details with students on a chalk board. Needless to say, the adjustment to being online, alone in my home, has been a tough one. That’s not to say that some good did not come out of this year though.
Let’s start with teaching. This is where the biggest changes to my day-to-day work life were made. At first, I was dreading online teaching. Seeing the looks on students’ faces during lecture provides me with real-time feedback on my explanations, while informal chats after lecture and during office hours can help students to see the placement of the material within the larger mosaic of mathematics. I typically like to reserve a small room on campus for my office hours and invite students to come and sit with me, working at their own pace instead of feeling rushed in and out of my office with pointed questions. All that to say: I worried that my enthusiasm for the material wouldn’t translate through a screen and that I wasn’t going to get to connect with my students.
I was mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly missed being in the same room as my students. But teaching online compelled me to be more creative with how I communicated course content. I not only integrated new methods that enhanced learning, but also found new productive ways of engaging with students. My lectures were held synchronously via Zoom and recorded for students to watch at their leisure if they preferred. Keeping lectures synchronous was important to me since I was still able to get some live feedback, thus making sure that I didn’t bulldoze through tricky material or skip over important details. Recording lectures meant that my students could work through the course in a way that accommodated their busy schedules, personal learning pace, and current timezone. Despite us all being scattered and isolated, a community of classmates came together through class discussion boards and my office hours. UW students are some of the most ambitious and curious that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching, and this was certainly on display in my interactions with them.
Teaching Computational Methods for Data Science in the Spring 2021 quarter was a highlight of my entire teaching career. My class had students with majors across the sciences, all coming at the material with their own perspectives on how it could be applied. As any student in the class will tell you, assignments were time-consuming, difficult, and open-ended - kind of like problems found outside the classroom. But, I’m sure nearly all of the students felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment upon each assignment’s completion. My personal favourite assignment merged the two things I love the most: math and music. Students were asked to extract the musical score from the opening guitar riff from Sweet Child O’ Mine using the Gabor transform. I finally did it: I worked classic rock into my math homework!
In addition to the positive side of online teaching, there were others good things about working remotely this past year. In particular, I admired the increased willingness and ability of researchers from around the globe to come together through online platforms. With faculty oversight from Steve Brunton, and Nathan Kutz, some of my colleagues (Joseph Bakarji, Henning Lange, and Jordan Snyder) and I capitalized on this by creating the Data-Driven Methods in Science and Engineering seminar. This virtual seminar was held bi-weekly and featured some of the leading figures advancing the tools and applications of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data-driven discovery to the sciences. Live attendance was consistently in the triple digits, with hundreds more watching the recordings that we uploaded to the Physics Informed Machine Learning YouTube channel. In fact, we were simply building on a long tradition of virtual AMATH seminars at UW as the PDE seminar has been held virtually long before the global pandemic even started.
In an effort to expose my Computational Methods course to modern data analysis, I offered extra credit to those that wrote me a single-paragraph summary of each seminar. Admittedly, it got off to a rocky start — a number of students wrote me to say they didn’t understand a thing during the first seminar they went to. But this quickly changed, and I was extremely proud as an educator to see that, after a few more seminars, students were asking the speaker valuable questions during the Q&A. I also had several students reach out to me to note connections between content in the seminar talks and the techniques we explored in class.
Now let’s talk about research. Doing research remotely was sometimes a drag, but two things made it considerably more exciting this past year. First, I began incorporating new data-driven techniques into my work. Second, and most importantly, I had two of the best advisors one could ask for: Steve Brunton and Nathan Kutz. Working remotely isn’t so bad when you’re met with enthusiasm and encouragement in your research meetings. Coupling this with productive collaborations with Kadierdan Kaheman, an inspiring PhD student in mechanical engineering, meant that I was continually excited about my ongoing projects. I was even able to be on the other side of the mentor-mentee relationship by working with AMATH undergraduates Jiajun Bao, Amelia Nathan, and Carter Peyton. These students joined me for an inquiry-based reading course using machine learning to understand chaotic dynamics in the Spring quarter. I was constantly blown away by their curiosity and maturity.
In Fall 2021, I’ll be moving on from UW to George Mason University, where I’ve accepted a tenure-track position in the mathematics department. I’m excited for my new position, but I’m also really going to miss the AMATH community. It’s been a hard year for everyone, but being surrounded by people like Steve, Nathan, Joe, Henning, Jordan, Kadierdan, Jiajun, Amelia, Carter and many others have made it better than I thought possible. With a return to normalcy (hopefully) coming soon, I hope that we carry with us what we’ve learned from this past year at home. We learned that people don’t need to all be on the same schedule (or even on the same continent!) to flourish in a class setting, that understanding and compassion towards others go a long way, and that just because we always did things a certain way in the past doesn’t mean we can’t change it. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for my friends in the AMATH department and I’m proud to say I was once a part of it.