A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in the 6th Encuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria (ECCO) in Barranquilla, Colombia. I had heard about ECCO from my good friends during the 2016 formal power series and algebraic combinatorics conference in Vancouver, BC, Canada. They had told me that ECCO was mathematics by day and salsa dancing by night. Those who know me would therefore surely not be surprised that this concept intrigued me a lot and from that day forward I vowed that I would do everything in my power to go to the next ECCO. Thus when January rolled around and the registration process opened for ECCO 2018 I signed up without even checking my bank account. Nothing was going to get in my way of combining math and dance. That was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Before going into further details, let me first explain what ECCO is. It's not your standard mathematical conference. It doubles as a summer school for undergrad and graduate students such as myself. As an example, this year we had the pleasure of learning from Günter Ziegler about polytopes, Vic Reiner about q-counting, Rekha Thomas about polynomial optimization and Lauren Williams about total positivity and cluster algebras. These difficult topics are broken down in such a way that even undergraduate students can follow along. These lectures are intermixed with presentations by graduate and postgraduate students and two plenary speakers. This year we had Sara Billey and Mauricio Velasco as our speakers and they were both amazing. Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez gives an exceptional recount of the conference on the AMS blogs network as does Viviane Pons here.
"But TCG," you might be thinking, "every summer school conference has lectures and talks!" and you'd be right. So then why did I say going was one of the best things I ever did? Because there are a few things that ECCO does that make it special and blow most other schools out of the water.
Firstly, there's the community agreement. For those who have participated in conferences aimed at minorities, a community agreement, or a code of conduct, isn't something new. It's basically a mutual agreement between all participants. It's an agreement that every person will be treated with respect and courtesy. This was the first time I saw this in a math conference which was a really nice addition. Adding this touch was the idea of Federico Ardila who is also the brain child of ECCO. He wanted to bring more diversity into mathematics and knew that in order to do that we must learn to respect one another.
Additionally, during the conference we spent a few minutes actually reading through the community agreement (found here) and talking to our peers about it. This was a nice touch in that it forced participants to actually be a part of the agreement instead of pushing it to the side and not actually abiding by its doctrine. This openness of dialogue allowed diversity to flourish at the conference and I will talk about this more later one.
Unlike most summer schools where you are taught things and have almost no time to digest the information, ECCO runs things a little differently. After each hour of lecture we had a 1.5 hour exercise/problem session. This allowed us to actually use the information we learned and to put into practice what the lecturers were talking about. Not only that, but the way the session was organized was well-done. We were all organized into groups of roughly 4-5 people in which there was always at least one postgraduate or professor and at least one undergraduate. The idea wasn't just to practice what you just learned, but to help others understand the material as well. Although this process was slower, it allowed you to make sure that you actually knew the material before continuing instead of just rushing through a problem set without thinking. Sometimes it got the more experienced mathematician teaching the undergraduates about linear independence, followed by the professor themselves learning something new!
One of the most noticeable differences at ECCO was what happened after the talks were done. In most conferences you end up going back to your room, grab something to eat, and probably work the rest of the night. Not in Colombia. In Colombia, after dinner the dancing begins, the part I had been looking forward to all day. It is the part where the students become the teachers and the professors become the students and the barriers that are typically seen between the two are obliterated. This is a nice touch because it allows students to see the professors as humans rather than as people who should be on a pedestal. It brings everyone down to the same level, usually taking away the fear from students that the professors are unapproachable.
Although the previous differences were all readily noticeable, the biggest and the one that tied everything together was something more subtle. It was mentioned a couple times during the conference when Federico asked the conference what it means to do mathematics the Colombian way. To understand this, you have to actually be there, but I'll try and break it down even though it's hard to put into words. Math in Colombia is working together as a community. This is seen throughout the entire conference. In the community agreement everyone starts off right away agreeing to work together, no matter their differences. Then you have the problem sessions which brought the small groups into a tight-knit bond in which everyone helped everyone. You also had the nightly dancing sessions where whatever barriers that were left were shattered and everyone was included in the global dance nights. Everyone was made equal. No one was singled out to be better than anyone else. This made us all feel like a part of the same family. We were all one big community and it helped us stay comfortable and therefore kept us going strong throughout the conference. THIS is what we need more of in mathematics.
The single-handed biggest reason I loved this conference was the diversity and inclusiveness that was brought on by the community agreement and doing math the Colombian way. In particular, I want to mention three main things. The first two are things that don't effect me individually but that I notice around me, the last had me crying mid-conference.
A lot of conferences in math tend to be done exclusively in English. Even conferences held in France, which has a strong tradition of making sure their language isn't consumed by another, tend to lean toward English. This is why it wasn't very surprising to me to see that the lectures and most presentations were given in English. But the nice part about ECCO was that, unlike other conferences where participants would adamantly only speak English, at ECCO all the English speakers made a concerted effort to speak Spanish. Even those who spoke no Spanish in the beginning started speaking a few words by the end. Every effort was made to try and bring mathematics into Spanish. This is huge as typically mathematics is done in one of four languages: English, French, German or Russian (in alphabetic order). In order to do mathematics in Spanish, new terminology was needed to be invented and that's great because it allows native Spanish speakers to be able to more readily and easily contribute to mathematics instead of having language be a barrier. It allowed a new venue for more Spanish speaking people to join the mathematics world, thus increasing the diversity within. This goal of bringing math to Spanish intrigued me as it made me wonder what math in Armenian would be like. It's not something I've ever had to do, but as of right now there isn't much math in Armenian. Armenia generally teaches math in Russian. So it gave me hope that one day I can do math in my native tongue, and that would be epic.
It might not surprise you that a conference in Colombia would have a high number of Colombians, but it was refreshing to see a large number of non-white people doing mathematics. It is well-known that mathematics is traditionally done by white male heterosexuals, so to see so many non-white people doing some amazing mathematics brought a smile to my face. But what was even better was seeing my friends who grew up in predominantly white areas have an extra hop in their step, a glow on their face, a wider smile than normal, when looking around and seeing people who look like them doing some amazing mathematics. It drove them to do better and to recommit to doing math. It made them feel a part of the community. This is how you get more diversity into math.
Not only that but the number of women at the conference was also fairly high (for a math conference). Although I didn't count the number of women, but it felt as though roughly 30% of the people in attendance were women. Not only that, but half (!!) of the speakers (half the lecturers, half the plenary speakers, half the presentations) were women! This is something you rarely see. Most mathematics is dominated by males (as an example, in my combinatorics department we have 7 males and 0 females) and so it's refreshing to see a concentrated push to get more women into mathematics. I'm hoping in future years to see the number of women participants to be 50% as well and want to work with others to try and make that a reality.
The last topic I'll talk about, and for me the biggest, is the LGTBQIPA+ community in mathematics. In recent years I've noticed something strange around me. Everywhere I looked, I felt alone. I felt like the only gay person doing mathematics. This is a weird feeling for me because I have always had queer friends everywhere I went. But in academia the LGTBQIPA+ community is few and far between. My friends point out there are a lot of queer people, but every name they give is a PhD student and every one of these students eventually leave academia. Sure there was Alan Turing, but he killed himself due to how horrible the English made his life because of his homosexuality. And yes, there's an entire group (consisting of 10 people) called Spectra in the AMS, but none of them are people I know and they all worked in different areas. Also, that brings the grand total of queer mathematicians to 10 (not counting Turing since he's dead) out of how many thousands of mathematicians? So I've started to feel more and more lonely in my math community. It felt like I didn't belong. All my friends are amazing and they always try to make me feel welcome, but it's just not the same.
Therefore it came as a big surprise to me when I counted at least 5 gay people at ECCO. My biggest shock, and the thing that has changed everything in my life, was a professor, and one of the lecturers of the conference: Günter Ziegler.
First a little background. Ziegler for me had always just been a name on multiple books and articles. I had put him in the category of "exceptional geniuses I will never meet". So to have met him at the conference was already an honour and a privilege. The way he presents mathematical material is flawless. Not only that, but he recently was elected as president of the Free University of Berlin (one of the biggest universities in Germany). But for me, meeting him for his achievements wasn't the big part. The biggest part came when one of my friends pointed out that Günter was also an out gay man! You can read a letter he wrote to Turing here where he describes life as a gay mathematician in Germany. The second I found about this article I hid myself in my hotel room and I read it. I actually couldn't believe my eyes. Here, a man I considered a genius, a man I considered to be one of the best mathematicians of all time, a man who was now at the head of one of the best universities in the world, was just like me. The amount of emotion that flooded my system at that time will stay off the record, but it suffices to say that for the first time in 3+ years, I didn't feel alone.
Not only that, but having a community agreement gave me the confidence in order to do something I had never done before. I invited my math friends at ECCO to a gay club. The awesome part was that people actually joined me! We ended up having 7 people in total go to the club. Sure, more than half of us weren't gay, and sure, the gay club wasn't that amazing, but just being out, in a gay club, with mathematicians... was amazing. I felt I belonged.
So in the end I felt like ECCO was the best conference I had ever been to. Having a community agreement allowed everyone to be open about themselves allowing queer people to be out. This in turn allowed me to feel a part of a community that for the past 3 years I had been struggling to feel a part of. I finally feel like I belong in mathematics and that I'm not alone. This is why ECCO is one of the best conferences ever. Doing math the Colombian way opens doors to allow people on the sidelines like myself to feel welcome. It allows diversity to flourish and creates an open community of all sorts of humans. It's the type of conference style I'd like to see replicated far and wide. We should all be doing mathematics the Colombian way.