My first International Conference in Guanajuato, Mexico

Posted in: conference, Statistical Applied Mathematics, Uncategorised

Given that this was my first time flying by myself, first time leaving Europe and first ever conference as a full time PhD student, it all started with a very innocuous exchange with my supervisor last October.

“Did you get my email about the BUC conference?”

“Yes. Is that the one you’re organising in Mexico?”

“Yes. You should come.”


Even when the journey to Heathrow livened things up with a cancelled train leaving me with half the recommended time to get through customs, I hardly felt like Thomas Brodie-Sangster at the end of Love Actually. It wasn’t until I regained feeling in my legs queueing for passport control that the ridiculous reality of my situation hit me: I had been funded by SAMBa to travel to Mexico. For a week. To talk about probability.

Stone depiction of Coyolxauhqui, Aztec Goddess of the Moon in Museo del Templo Mayor

After a light-speed tour of Mexico City from Sonny we were off to the CIMAT Scientific Research Institute in Guanajuato. Hidden away in the hills, the CIMAT building overlooks the vibrant patchwork houses below and the sweeping countryside in the distance. The only view more astounding than that from the balcony was the sight of mathematicians facing the opposite direction, scribbling on blackboards!

Indeed, as one might expect at such events, it was non-stop probability for the whole week. There were some great talks on Galton Watson Trees and Percolation, but the one most closely related to my work was the talk on the Electrical Network Approach to Random Walks. There were also three mini-courses throughout the week, which were a great opportunity to learn about new areas of probability such as Gaussian Free Fields and Push and Pull Waves in Population Genetics. However, just as crucial to the schedule as the mini-courses were the many coffee breaks—as this was a probability conference, it is only fitting to recall the famous Renyi quote: “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”. These coffee breaks also highlighted the international nature of this conference. Discussions were led in French, Spanish and Portuguese (to name just a few) before seamlessly transitioning into English for the next talk. In fact, as a monolingual first year PhD student, I found it hard to understand what anyone was saying at any given time!

The view from the balcony at CIMAT

But herein lies my biggest takeaway from the conference. PhDs are hard. Maths is hard. I know that this sounds facile, but allow me to make to my case. My supervisors and I had been stuck on the same problem on my PhD for three months which was three months more than I was used to spending on one problem. My supervisors were amazing keeping me supplied with new ideas and approaches but I was really beginning to doubt my own ability. I was thinking about quitting. On the third day of the conference I plucked up the courage to follow the advice of my supervisor and talk to one of the academics about my problem to see what they thought. It took me 10 minutes to explain the problem, another 10 minutes of clarifications and initial scribblings, and 10 minutes of deep concentration before they finally concluded: “Hmm. Yeah, it’s a hard problem”. I was overjoyed—that simple acknowledgement of the struggle really put things into perspective.

Huge cactus on the walk down into town (Sonny for scale)

This was only helped further by the extraordinary company I had with me at the conference. It was great seeing friendly faces from Bath, but greater still to meet new people from CIMAT and UNAM and get to spend time with them over the course of the week. It turns out they are all struggling with their research too! Being able to connect with strangers from 5000 miles away with a simple “what problem are you stuck on at the moment?” is something unique to the world of academia, and it is all the better for it. It is no wonder then why we will fly half way around the world just for the opportunity to talk about maths.

I left Guanajuato with new friends, new ideas and newfound confidence that I will finish this PhD one way or another. Not to mention a newfound love of Mexican cuisine. I collapsed into my seat on the plane back to Heathrow, exhausted from the jet-lag, late night salsa, sunburn and mountains of new mathematics crammed into my brain. I couldn’t help but think “same time next year”!

Posted in: conference, Statistical Applied Mathematics, Uncategorised


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