AMATH 922: An Introduction to Graduate School

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on

By Ellie Byrnes & Alex Hsu

Hello dear reader! We (Ellie Byrnes and Alex Hsu) just finished our first year as PhD students in Applied Math at UW. It was a really exciting time to begin graduate school and finally start seeing people again (in real life!) after the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns. It was definitely a bit scary after over a year of limited social interactions to immediately be thrust into a new environment, and it’s easy to be nervous about making new friends in such a setting. However, we were delighted to find a really welcoming department waiting for us as we quickly developed a supportive and fun community within our cohort and beyond.

During our first year we both took a variety of classes in terms of coursework, and due to the flexibility granted by our course requirements, we were able to include a handful of courses from outside of the AMATH department! Alex explored by taking a topics course on Gaussian Free Fields in the math department, group theory in the physics department, and a reinforcement learning course from EE. On the one hand these classes helped him build a broader knowledge-base to draw from in his work, but on the other, they were just quite fun! On the other hand, Ellie took just one geophysical fluid dynamics course offered in the atmospheric science department, but she repeatedly built on this course later to pursue more interdisciplinary work for projects in core classes as well as research the following summer!

Of course, we also took our fair share of required courses for our program, strengthening our mathematical toolboxes for the future and allowing us plenty of time to bond with our new friends in this year’s cohort while working on problem sets or studying for exams together. In particular, almost everybody in our cohort took Professor Bernard Deconinck’s Complex Analysis in the fall and Asymptotic Analysis with Professor Tom Trogdon in the winter. Courses like these helped forge the bonds of our cohort through “legendary” problem sets (as Bernard might call them) and challenging course material which sharpened our teeth and drew us all together.

We both got started with research as well this year with our reading courses, each performing two readings. Two choices for each of us weren’t even half of the wonderful options for research or advisors, and deciding on which paths we’d be interested in looking further into was a really difficult choice! However, Ellie eventually decided to pursue readings in water wave stability and decomposing climate signals, and Alex did readings on relaxation methods for non-smooth optimization and applications of optimal transport to variational inference.

For Ellie, the water wave problem is quite an old problem with centuries of literature dedicated to it, and even with the extra-departmental background courses she took, learning enough about climate science to start looking at a problem required a significant amount of reading on both fronts. Similarly for Alex, in the most general settings optimal transport has developed a lot of deep theory in the last couple of decades, meaning he had quite his fair share of reading ahead of him as well. However, eventually we were both able to decide on projects we wanted to pursue further and make solid progress on research. We also participated in a number of journal clubs and seminars, including the Numerical Analysis Research Club (NARC), the Applied PDEs Seminar, the Methods of Applied Math Journal Club, and the Random Matrix Journal Club (RaMJoC). During the summer quarter, we also finally had a chance to really focus on research without having to worry about TAing or classes. While our cohort saw each other less often, we both participated in an optimization journal club each week, and when it became hotter in June departmental ice cream socials began occurring, and these quickly became some of the events where we could most consistently meet up with our friends over the summer quarter.

None of this is to say that we weren’t impacted by Covid. The spread of the Omicron variant shut down campus for the start of our winter quarter, which made seeing our friends and being fully engaged in classes difficult throughout January. However, once the spike passed we were able to resume our lives as before, and as the school year drew to a close, life around campus was starting to feel normal, even relative to pre-pandemic times.

Many traditional AMATH activities sprung up again in the calming as the pandemic slowed. The meetings of our student chapter of SIAM sprung up again, hosting events to help first years navigate the Ph.D. in the fall and meetings with the Boeing lecturers as they started visiting campus later in the year. Ellie was actually able to volunteer to help out with SIAM at one of the early meetings and ended up being its vice president for the year, and Alex had a great time getting back into weightlifting, and found himself working out a lot with Professor Matt Lorig and Professor Bamdad Hosseini. Others in the department were also able to get a workout in other ways, be it through running or bouldering, or sneaking in some time to toss about a frisbee before Asymptotic Analysis once it got warmer at the end of winter quarter!

Departmental tea times also started occurring on Tuesdays and Thursdays once restrictions relaxed, and they were always fun events to build community over tea and snacks, and sometimes even a board game or two!

We were also able to befriend and make connections with various older graduate students during our first year here. SIAM meetings were a great way to meet them, as were the meetings of various departmental clubs, such as the Applied Knot Theory knitting and crocheting group! Furthermore, a number of Friday evening happy hours were a chance to meet and talk to them in a much more casual environment. There was even a rat-themed party which many varied members of our community went to! Another great returning event was the annual departmental dessert competition in March. Our classmates Damien and Leo won first prize and an airfryer with their delicious German layer cake. Ellie (who was away at her undergraduate graduation) fully intends on competing next year and giving Damien a run for his money, Alex competed with his ((apparently less) delicious) lemon bars. Alex also attended the contemporaneous open house and got to meet the prospective students for next year, hiking at Twin Falls with them and a number of professors the next day.

Throughout the year, we made new friends and developed as mathematicians by taking classes together, focusing individually on our research, and meeting up again to have fun together and develop ourselves even outside of our particular research interests, but there was one more event that we thought relevant to our first year experience. At the end of our spring quarter, Bernard held a dessert party for some of his graduating students and in addition to being a rather enjoyable (and tasty!) event it also gave us a glimpse at what our lives might look like throughout the Ph.D. and beyond. We’ve made some amazing friends and done some great work in our first year here, and we’re so excited to continue growing together throughout the Ph.D. with the rest of our wonderful cohort!

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