A mathematical record from the pandemic

The new normal

We are living in a time few of us would have imagined possible only months ago. Millions worldwide are affected by the novel coronavirus COVID-19, resulting in a significant loss of life and immense pressure on healthcare systems. Millions are unemployed and facing economic hardships unseen since the Great Depression. Businesses are shuttered, depriving so many of their livelihoods. No one is flying, no one is going to movies or restaurants or concerts. The world is frozen in a dystopian novel, waiting expectantly for what an unknown future will bring.

Mathematicians are affected by the pandemic like everyone else. Many of us were in the middle of our academic semesters when the lockdowns began, causing massive disruptions to our teaching and professional lives. Lecture rooms have been empty for almost two months. While I’m on sabbatical and not teaching, I watched as each of my research and conference trips in 2020 evaporated one-by-one.

Our field is luckier than others in the professoriate: we can pursue the majority of our research without labs or the need for in-person interaction. But the stresses caused by working from home in less than ideal settings, childminding, and homeschooling have taken their toll. Many of us are missing the social connections we took for granted, with our colleagues, our students, and our friends and family. There’s a low-level anxiety field wrapped around our planet, and isolation is the new normal.

A virtual time-capsule

In the midst of the crisis, I chose to sample the thoughts and feelings of mathematicians and mathematical scientists. Part of that was a humanizing effort, bringing our stories (so often hidden) more readily to the surface. That’s been a theme of the blog and my pop math writing. My other motivation was the desire for a historical record. Years from now, the pandemic of 2020 will be a memory (I hope!), and future generations will look back at our time and wonder what life was like, what mistakes were made, and what lessons there are to be learned. I wanted, apologies for the cliche, to make a virtual time-capsule.

The present blog is the product of my outreach to mathematicians, asking them one question:

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your mathematical practice?

The responses below, in the format of a single paragraph, answer that question. My colleagues wrote of the impact on their research, teaching, supervision, service, or administrative work. Some are quite candid about the deleterious effects of the lock-down. Others cite hope and a newfound appreciation of life before the pandemic. I did minimal, stylistic edits to the responses, so these represent faithfully the words of the mathematicians.

An advantage of a blog like this one is that I can add more responses over time. If you are a mathematics or statistics professor and would like to contribute, then please reach out to me.

Responses

Derek Bingham, Department of Statistics & Actuarial Science, Simon Fraser University, CANADA: “I have found that in spite of reduced random interruptions from knocks on my office door, my ability to concentrate and think deeply has been hampered.  The search for a sense of normalcy in this time continues.  Reaching out to colleagues (socially and otherwise) and working collaboratively has been a great source of inspiration and comfort.  I worry about my students a lot. Human resiliency is not unbounded.”

Anthony Bonato, Department of Mathematics, Ryerson University, CANADA: “I’m grateful: that’s one of the strongest sentiments I’ve had during this pandemic, and it may seem paradoxical given the severity of the planetary crisis. I’m grateful that no one in my immediate circle of friends or family has been affected by COVID-19. Amidst the staggering loss of life and devastating economic impact, I’m grateful that curves are flattening in most countries. I’m grateful to our front line workers in healthcare, medical research, and those in essential services such as grocery store workers. The pandemic sheds new light on what we mean by an “essential service.” A Raptor’s game, while fun, isn’t essential. Trips to malls aren’t essential, nor are music concerts, or political rallies. I’m grateful that my research, done primarily with pen and paper, continues. Coupled with my gratitude is an unshakable sense of worry. I worry about the execution of the Fall 2020 semester, the impact on our students, and the ability of professors to teach and conduct research. In-person conferences feel very distant at this point. I’m worried about the impact of the pandemic on new academics looking for jobs. I’m worried that a second wave of the pandemic may come at the worst possible time. But there’s hope there too. We’ve seen people follow the directives of scientists and make a major impact on the course of the disease. Imagine the possibilities if we acted every day towards the common good, driven by what scientists discover (climate change, I’m looking directly at you). Mathematics must and will continue beyond this plague. We are holding that torch now and will not let go so it may continue to burn bright for future mathematicians.”

Jason Brown, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dalhousie University, CANADA: “Every week, day, minute and second is isomorphic to the rest, with nothing to mark one from the other—it’s like being stuck in a song with no key. It’s hard to find purpose when you and your loved ones are in constant Brownian motion.  Teaching has been both a challenge and a chore. Within a week I was tossed into swirl of technology, with little knowledge of what would work pedagogically online and what won’t. Exam preparation and grading have become onerous, given that I decided to create a different exam for each of my 50 students. And even that didn’t completely avoid the problem of undesired (and illegal!) student collaboration. The tools of technology are a poor substitute for face-to-face research collaborations, especially with students. Online whiteboards that don’t update in real-time, erasers that inadvertently remove all vestiges of the current work rather than just a small fragment, audio issues that leave most of the meeting spent saying “Can you hear me? CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?” But even with all of this, there are still opportunities to move the research forward, and to teach students how to think and experience research.  The forced time in isolation has, as well, allowed me to start some longer-term projects. The upside of fewer daily pressures is the possibility of returning to learning new mathematics, just for fun (rather than necessity). I look forward to getting back to normal, but undoubtedly, that will be a new normal. Life is linear, and my whole life – professional and personal – marches on. I hope to carry forward the lessons I have learned.”

Ron Buckmire, Department of Mathematics, Occidental College, USA: “COVID-19 has actually seemed to make me slightly more productive. I tend to publish a paper every year (or every other year) and so far this year I have completed editing a proceedings volume and am about ready to submit an article in my primary research area of numerical analysis–the first one in about five years.”

Kathie Cameron, Department of Mathematics, Wilfrid Laurier University, CANADA: “For the six weeks from March 13, when my university announced that the rest of the term would be online, until April 24, when I submitted my grades for the term, I felt constant pressure and literally worked morning to night to prepare remote classes and extra course materials, help students through online office hours and email, figure out how to make up exams that could be written online, mark the exams, review the exam videos for evidence of cheating, and deal with cases of cheating. I don’t remember any time in my life when I had to work so constantly. I’m not saying it was the most difficult work I’ve ever done, but it I felt constantly pressed. Part of the problem was that although I have course websites with notes, problems and solutions, I always give lectures by writing on the board, so I didn’t have any slides. I had to learn a lot of technology. Thankfully, my department worked together through MS teams, so we didn’t each have to discover everything on our own. For me, the hardest thing about remote teaching was not being able to know my students’ reactions. I worried that the majority who never contacted me might be lost or might just not be working.  The most depressing thing was much more cheating, despite our efforts to make reasonable exams and the university’s offer of a credit / withdrawal option. Once the term was over, I had various research projects to catch up on. I felt bad for not having responded to my research colleagues for such a long time. I am not teaching in the Spring term and have gotten back into my research. I am enjoying a variety of research presentations from around the world but miss in-person research discussions.”

Ingrid Daubechies, Department of Mathematics, Duke University, USA: “I wonder whether this might also be a time when cultural differences express themselves in other ways as well.  My children are grown, and my husband shares in household chores pretty equally. So I don’t have the same limitations on my time as a result of the social distancing measures and staying at home. Yet I find myself more absorbed in community-building efforts (both online and locally, and by contributing beyond financially, by sewing masks, cooking, pulling together teams in weekly meetings and forging ahead with joint projects as much as feasible, pulling in students whose internships have evaporated) than by the urge to do mathematics—and am surprised at the number of my male colleagues wanting to write proposals. Of course, writing a proposal is community-building of a sort too, but it seems more longer-term and less “useful” to me at this time.”

Danny Dyer, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Memorial University of Newfoundland, CANADA: “The pandemic has been hard. I was teaching large classes, and they required a lot of plate-spinning to switch over to remote teaching. The hardest part was dealing with worried students, asking questions that would affect their courses and their degrees, and not having answers. Even knowing that the university was working on answers, it made me feel very helpless—I can’t imagine what it was like for the students.”

Fan Chung Graham, Department of Mathematics, University of California San Diego, USA: Mathematics is a great profession since you only need pencil, paper and zoom sessions. Sheltering at home provides lots of time to think about different aspects of unsolved problems as well as alternative scopes for the universe we live in. As the physical surroundings get smaller, the reach of the mind seems drifting further with the help of the web.”

Lisa Jeffrey, Department of Mathematics, University of Toronto, CANADA: “This term I was one of five organizers of a thematic program at Fields Institute (Toric Topology and Polyhedral Products). We had spent the better part of a year planning the program and were heartbroken when Fields closed in the middle of March and all programs had to be postponed. When it became clear that Fields was not reopening anytime soon, we transferred the programs online. The workshop intended for late March (‘Torus Actions in Topology’) will take place on Zoom May 11-15. Most of the participants accepted to give their lectures online. Some had difficulties because schools and daycares are closed and they cannot prepare or give online talks while supervising online school. This includes one of my co-organizers, who is single-handedly supervising online school for his two grade-school children in TDSB schools. Others were apprehensive that they would be able to give talks using Zoom. Others had difficulties because the participants are now all in different time zones. We changed the schedule to accommodate them. My favourite term for my co-organizers is “Buddies in bad times.” This is the title of a poem by Jacques Prévert, ‘Le concert n’a pas été réussi’ translated to English and sung by Eric Bentley and made famous as the name of a Canadian theatre company.  I found Bentley’s song on Spotify, but there are many translations in French for ‘buddy’ (copains? potes?) and even more for ‘bad times’. Well, my co-organizers have been very good buddies  in these very bad times!”

Matilde Lalin, Département de Mathématiques et de Statistique, Université de Montréal, CANADA: “For me, having my elementary school kids at home means that I have to plan and do homeschooling, as the instructions from the schools for my kids are not always coherent or useful. My available time for work and my energy have been drastically reduced. Until last week I was only able to work on my (online) teaching. I spent more than 6 weeks practically away from research. Now that the Winter session is over I have a bit more time to do research, but I also need to take care of the several students that I supervise. It is quite clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected tenure and tenure-track faculty very differently depending on their personal situations and home arrangements. Many of my colleagues seem to be more available than before and they even seem to be quite productive, as they have the energy to organize interesting seminars and projects. I appreciate the seminars very much, but I can hardly follow them due to time constraints, it’s frustrating. (Of course, I’m only talking about differences within the set of tenure and tenure-track faculty. I’m perfectly aware that this set to which I belong is composed of the most privileged people in this pandemic.)”

Javad Mashregi, Département de Mathématiques et de Statistique, Université Laval, CANADA: “I was supposed to run two big conferences this summer. In particular, a one-month focus program at Fields Institute that took a lot of my time and energy. All of these events are postponed now. Like many colleagues, I sit in my home office and conduct my courses and help my graduate students via Zoom and Teams. While the lockdown, I plan to finish a book that is going to be published by the AMS and advance some similar projects. However, this is not why I write this memo! Many of my colleagues are following similar patterns. I am worried about the following issue. On one hand, several aspects of our academic life have already become more and more difficult; for example, getting the celebrated Discovery Grant of NSERC and several other individuals or team grants, increasing cost of supervising graduate students, publishing in top journals, the hassle of traveling and attending conferences, difficulties of event organization, etc. Even before dealing with the COVID-19 the above concerns existed and were discussed. On the other hand, the comfort of staying home, spending time with family, doing gardening or other house-related tasks have shown their tempting features to us. This could be very ‘dangerous’ for mid-career colleagues. Benefiting from the stability of a tenured position, we might ask ourselves why not to continue the same for the rest of our academic life?! Scary, isn’t it? This is just a personal feeling and a decade from now we would be able to assess how many really followed this pass.”

Barry Mazur, Department of Mathematics, Harvard University, USA: “The only answer I thought up to your question is really unprintable because it is too painfully obvious; namely, it is simply the truism that ‘thinking about mathematics’ tends to be impervious to worldly changes, BUT mathematical practice interpreted as the practical consequences of mathematics (in the hands of the more applied mathematicians)  will change as it becomes of greater and greater use in dealing with this crisis. Of course, the medium of Zoom for mathematical discussions (and classes)  has modified—with interesting consequences—the way in which we interact with and teach each other.”

Margaret-Ellen Messinger, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Mount Allison University, CANADA: “My husband and I are both department heads and each day, we juggle childcare with administrative duties and student advising.  On days when I still have a bit of energy left by the evening, I have been planning how my fall course could be offered in an online format and have been picking away at research projects.  But most evenings, I don’t have the energy and instead curl up with a book and relax for an hour before bed.”

Bojan Mohar, Department of Mathematics, Simon Fraser University, CANADA: “COVID-19 restrictions came overnight. I was just packing to fly from Vancouver over the Rockies to a BIRS meeting in Banff when it was announced that Alberta is banning all international meetings. (In fact, by that time, two days before the meeting, most participants declined and only about 15 Canadians were eager to come.) Some of us were already teaching online, and we decided to have the conference online. We were missing the usual workshop atmosphere, but the talks were extremely well attended and everything was running smoothly. Now we work from home. Teaching takes a lot of preparation, but otherwise, it is research heaven, at least for those who like to think and work in solitude. It is working extremely well for me, at least for now, and it should be great for the foreseeable future of the next two to three months. However, I believe that this way of working would have a serious negative effect on all of us if we were to follow it for a much longer time.”

Joy Morris, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Lethbridge Univesity, CANADA: “I wasn’t teaching during the semester when the pandemic hit, so I haven’t yet experienced an impact on my teaching. I had a fabulous research trip and holiday to New Zealand in February—late enough that people from China were unable to attend the conference, but early enough that we went about our work with no concern, and no awareness of what was coming. My family came with me, and I think memories of that trip have helped us through some of the tougher times. Looking back at that time I marvel at our naivete. Aside from cancelled conferences – I was scheduled to speak at four in May through July, and was organising a fifth—the biggest impact on my mathematical work has come from the closure of schools. Child care and mental health have been taking up a much larger portion of my time than they would under normal circumstances, leaving me with more limited time and energy for research. In Alberta, we’re simultaneously facing (and worrying over) huge provincial cuts to post-secondary funding, and projected low Fall enrolments, which increases the stress and anxiety. I am regularly reminded, though, of how fortunate I am relative to many of my colleagues in other departments who are unable to accomplish much research at all without their labs, equipment, animals, libraries, etc. Not only my own research but the summer students I’ll be supervising are able to proceed with very little impact. As long as I have writing equipment and my laptop—and the time—I can work.”

Richard Nowakowski, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dalhousie University, CANADA: “Some random thoughts from a retiree. I’m missing the big whiteboard from my university office. I hadn’t realized how much I needed it to hold detailed calculations. Or how much I missed the walk to and from the university. It seemed to be deprived of oxygen and of time to think freely. The first couple of weeks I was not able to focus well. Mathematical life actually picked up as more colleagues wanted to at least bounce ideas around even if they didn’t have any time to spend on them. Bodes for a busy summer. On-line meetings became regular instead of one-off events. Working on new projects on-line with two or three people was slower than in person but mistakes or hidden assumptions seem to get caught faster than in person. But that did depend on having good connections. Also, being willing to spend 10 to 20 minutes just chatting about life before doing math seemed to keep humanity in the relationships.”

Ortrud Oellermann, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Winnipeg, CANADA: “On Friday, March 13, around the middle of the day, our faculty were notified that, with immediate effect, all in-person classes would be suspended for an indefinite period in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19.  On very short notice we made plans to transition to online delivery of course materials for the last three weeks of the term and found ways to give online tests and finals—mainly using Crowdmark. This transition was particularly challenging as we simply did not have sufficient and appropriate resources. Nevertheless, our department members rose to the challenge and through mutual support, hard work and long hours made online delivery possible for every one of our courses. By March 16 we started delivering our classes online and none of us compromised standards. We received a great deal of positive feedback from students who were impressed with the way we rose to the challenge of online delivery. Our departmental assistant also played a vital role during this time as she assisted many students with a host of different challenges they were experiencing. Perhaps the most challenging part of this new way of doing things is finding ways to prevent academic misconduct on tests and exams. We are now all working from home. Some of us are delivering online spring courses and others are supervising research students and we keep in touch through regular Zoom meetings. I do miss in-person interactions with my colleagues though.”

Marie-Françoise Roy, UFR Mathématiques, University of Rennes 1, FRANCE: “I am an emeritus professor and so am not involved in trying to organize teaching activities without a classroom. I am in France, at home, confined with my husband for over six weeks already. Our life is comfortable but we suffer from not seeing family and friends or taking long walks. I feel both privileged and disconnected. I was involved with many projects (finishing math papers, writing proposals related to sustainable development in Niger) for which I needed to have time that I was never finding, and now I am taking care of them.  I decided to read more books from Margaret Atwood during this period, and we also watched the Westworld first and second season, following a recommendation from our daughter. I am part of the May 12 initiative group and we realized that lectures or roundtables are not going to be possible this year.  So we made an agreement with Zala Films and we offered a free screening of Secrets of the Surface for people who register on the May 12 website. Within six weeks we have already received over 9000 requests, from 114 countries all over the world. Many of the meetings I was invited to have been cancelled and now I wonder “were they really necessary ?” I anticipate that meetings in person will be more and more difficult in the future and hope the International Mathematical Union Committee for Women in Mathematics (CWM) ambassador network can find new ways of communicating their experience.”

Katherine Stange, Department of Mathematics, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA: “Research has ended. Without childcare, our daily lives are a sort of conveyor belt of first-grade schoolwork, chores, and delivering deeply unsatisfying zoom lectures, all with a background soundtrack of monster truck chatter (on a good day) or screaming (on a bad day).  Catching glimpses of research (lecture announcements and new arXiv papers) makes me feel nostalgic, yearning, sad.  But I find my priorities have settled firmly on helping my family, my neighbours, and my students.  Although I ache for research, it doesn’t seem important enough now.”

Francis Su, Department of Mathematics, Harvey Mudd College, USA: “Like most, I’m struggling to adapt to the uncertainty and discomfort wrought by the pandemic, which has forced me to re-think my research and my teaching. I’m realizing privileges I’ve taken for granted—health, access to technology and resources, an undistracted environment for work—that were unavailable to others even before the pandemic began. I’ve been made more aware of the potential and the limitations of using technology. Having had to pare back, I’m asking afresh what is really essential in what and how I teach, and that is a good thing. And I’ve been reminded of why I teach math and do research in math within the larger context of seeking the well-being and flourishing of my fellow human beings.”

Maria Vlasiou, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Twente, THE NETHERLANDS: “I started the lockdown with pneumonia, which coincided with the first day that my region went into lockdown, though the schools followed a week down the road. That first week, without children. I was seriously ill and in bed. In the next two weeks, the antibiotics started kicking in, but all I managed was to help with the schooling of my children. We have three children (aged 1.5, 5, 7 years) and we are both professors in mathematics. My mother took over the baby and I helped with the older two so that my husband could work for two to three hours. The rest was spent in bed. After I regained most of my energy, we implemented a rotation with my husband so that we could have some working hours. In practice, this meant that I took over the oldest two children until 13.30 and had two hours afterwards. My husband had the baby after 10.30, but he was able to squeeze two hours of work in the morning and two hours after 13.30 (while the TV was babysitting the oldest two, and the baby was asleep.) This revealed that in terms of household, I took almost all the work. In terms of work, my Ph.D. students suffered. I have at least 50+ unread emails per Ph.D. student, numerous documents for revision, but I stopped giving any feedback. The most experienced ones are doing OK and are busy with research and revisions. The newest one though needed significant help which I had no time to provide. I searched in my network of colleagues and was fortunate to locate one that could help (expert, no children, in need of Ph.D. students). I also outsourced the experienced Ph.D. students to junior professors in my group. I spend my two to four hours of work per day (depending on how exhausted I was at night) in urgent things: meetings of various committees, setting up an online course that I’m running right now (with 100+ students), and the usual stuff (PC, editorial etc). One revision came up from a paper that no Ph.D. student is involved.  My co-author is really unhappy but I only managed to put one hour in it for the past three weeks. This was my complete “research activity”. I work whenever possible, irrespective of the day—weekends no longer matter of course. As schools have vacation now (their online format), my children demand less attention and I’m happy to let them figure it out in the garden, with their toys, or TV. This allowed me to do more of the urgent stuff, but still no research. Getting ONE uninterrupted hour is rather hard. The first such hour is around 20.30 and oftentimes I am so knackered that all I can do is go through a few emails.  Just back from changing a diaper. This email ended up being a perfect demonstration of my activities. My mother came to say that the baby needed care (she cannot lift him). My husband replied, “Ask Maria, I’m working.” Apparently, what I’m presumably doing behind my computer must be insignificant compared to his work (though indeed, accidentally, I would also not characterize this email as work. I did sit down however to do that revision.) Anyhow, let me summarise: work went down to two to four hours at best, with four being a rare event. Ph.D. students got outsourced. I manage all BSc, MSc theses and teaching, plus all committees. I alternate the older kids with the husband to achieve the two hours during the working day and we do respect each other’s teaching schedule and very important meetings. Being in the exact same rank and profession allows us to easily judge this. There is however a bit of tension and lack of communication. I guess a two-month-long lockdown will do that to most. Other than the children, for which we mainly share the care, I take care of the house (cooking, cleaning). Still, I feel lucky. My job is flexible enough. My research is suffering, but I am a tenured full professor and a delay of a few months won’t make a dent in my total output overall. However, the stress did go up. I literally starting having nightmares about my job at nights. Even keeping all urgent tasks going and meeting truly important deadlines has become a challenge. Being at a “critical profession” under the classification of this country meant that we always had the right to send the children to school/daycare (schools are closed and accept only children where both parents are fully employed in a critical profession). We tried to manage without as we have several high-risk people in the family for any respiratory disease. However, we took the joint decision to send the kids back to school (making use of the exception rule to its maximum), because we simply don’t manage anymore—even the urgent things. You got the idea. I better start with that revision now.”

 

Anthony Bonato

3 thoughts on “A mathematical record from the pandemic

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