The network you grow up with

A sense of home is a powerful feeling. The sense of belonging, of knowing where everything is. I miss that sometimes.

I left Ireland almost exactly 10 years ago with a burning need to go out and prove myself. I had finally recovered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and was going to take up a much delayed PhD position. I moved to the University of Luebeck, where I found my introduction to neuroscience, before moving on to Paris Descartes, the École Normale Supérieure and the University of Chicago. With each move I developed a new network of colleagues, collaborators, and mentors.

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a member of the Irish mathematical community. Many years ago I wrote the website for the Mathematics Department at NUI, Galway. While doing that I included biographies of the then members of staff and their research domains. At some point, I also made a backup of the website for my own reference under my personal domain. Sadly, many of the members of staff who worked at NUI, Galway when I was an undergraduate are now dead. So now this resource has become a useful archive. And thus I was re-discovered by a member of the current Irish mathematical community.

A member of the community

I began my studies in Pure Mathematics in September 2001. For the next 8 years I was deeply involved in the Irish mathematical community. I was a top student. I was responsible for developing many of the computer-oriented advances in the department in Galway (compute servers, numerical computing programmes, etc.). I was a founder member of the re-vamped Mathematical Society at the University.

I worked most of my summers in the department. At one point, along with Donny Hurley, I developed an online examination system for statistics students. The system included a mathematical interpretter (written by us) which allowed lecturers to implement questions in a form of interpretted code – giving individualised numerical values to each student, but allowing the computer to correct each homework. We even built numerical tolerances into the grading code.

Towards the end of my time in Ireland, I was involved in organising the British Mathematical Colloquium in Galway. That same year, I was trusted to lecture a masters (M.Sc.) course on Artificial Neural Networks. This is a rather unusual distinction, since I had only finished my own (research-based) masters degree a year earlier – and I had never formally studied the topic. All of this is to say, I was deeply, deeply integrated into a community. And I think that it is fair to say that I was valued by them.

Go abroad

The advice in Ireland to promising undergraduate students is to go abroad. We have an inferiority complex about the quality of our education system. Having studied and worked academically in multiple institutions, in at least 4 of the countries most renowned for science internationally….. the system under which I studied in Ireland was really fucking good!

That said, Ireland is a very small country. And if you don’t go abroad then you are most likely a little too closely tied to your supervisor and the head of department under whom you do your PhD. So it’s definitely a growth moment to go abroad and compare yourself to international students.

I left Ireland with the intention of studying complex adaptive systems then, hopefully, coming back to a tenured academic position. For both good and bad, my growth moment turned into a massive growth period during which I found my greatest happiness at the ENS, the people the most like me at the University of Chicago, and I eventually learned that my greatest interest is in developing mathematical models for healthcare.

From being a largely randomly directed graduate from the West of Ireland, I have grown into somebody who knows what problems they want to work on and how to raise the funding to enable this. I consider myself part of an international community – of peers – who share my interests. And I am a welcome, and invited, speaker at many of the top research institutions around the world.

Side note: my recent work is very un-academic, so we’ll have to see how well I connect back into this world when I move on to my next project. But I see all of these topics as being connected. And, for now, I am still being welcomed by friends and interested parties.

The thing that has been most difficult with all of my geographical moves has been building a network. As a result, I have become extremely good at it.

You’re still welcome

What was particularly nice about hearing from a member of the current Irish mathematical community was to be asked to be included in their Annals of Irish Mathematics and Mathematicians. I had forgotten that I still belonged to this community. Time and distance – combined with a disappearance of most of my friends from Irish academia – had made me think that I no longer had a home there.

In fact, there is a large community of Irish mathematicians spread across the world. Some of us have invested less in our membership of that community than others. It seems to be a network of individuals wholly disinterested in boosting their own (a point of view I do not disagree with). Indeed, I would argue that the Irish academic community is notably weak when I compare it with other Irish international networks. But the network exists nonetheless.

Looking through the awardees of the NUI, Galway Travelling Studentships I recognise a large number of faces. Many of them returned to Galway as academics and taught me. A few others, like Conor Houghton I encountered in my own research career abroad. I remember visiting his lab, then at TCD, to give a talk while I was at Luebeck.

The Maths Ireland Blog is another source of welcome faces. Peter McCullagh had more than a passing interest in my field when I was at the University of Chicago. And Colm O’Muircheartaigh (a number of who’s family I grew up with) was head of the school of public policy, bringing Michael D. Higgins to visit, in the same period.

The nice thing about going home is knowing where things are and how they work. In my time, living and working outside of Ireland, I have become an expert at operating in different cultural contexts. But it’s always tiring. Going back, even for a few hours, to visit the network I grew up with has been a relaxing trip down memory lane. It brings with it a timely reminder of what I value in life and also of the reasons for which I left.

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