I am a mathematics professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. I like mathematics and where it takes me, from the student-filled classroom, to the far-off and interesting places of both the earth and the mind. I also like the freedom my job allows, giving room for the adventures written about here.
Scroll to the bottom of the page for the Math Geek Adventures blog archive.
My time in Helsinki has come to a close. I write this on the morning of the day that I fly out.
It's been a good trip all around. The work with Heikki Haario and Antti Solonen was more productive than I could have hoped. The trip to the Finnish lakes with Heikki, Antti, and Heikki's son Ilmari was a lot of fun. Staying in the city center and visiting old haunts and old friends (particularly the Haarios and Kaskinens) was good. Three weeks was too long though.
Coming back to Helsinki after having lived here for a year in 2006-07, many small memories come back: the food, our old haunts, the feel of the place, the people, bits of the language. Very little seems to have changed since we left four years ago, and yet I think back to how small the kids were then, and it seems that much has changed in my life.
Helsinki is a great and beautiful city. This year it was ranked, by some US magazine, as the best city in the world to live in. I can believe it. Nonetheless, here for work, alone, and having had lived here for a year, the newness wears off quick, leaving me feeling lonely and far from home. I can't wait to get back to the family.
It's mid-summer weekend right now, one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year in Finland, and the city is shut down. Still, the main part of the city center is packed with tourists, and as I've said in previous journals, tourists are of a different mind-set than people living normal life. A lot of money is flying out of their pockets, so they start doing funny things. For example, twice while I've been here, eating at a self-serve salad or soup bar downtown, I've seen a traveler take such an enormous quantity of food -- and these aren't fat people, mind you -- that they will certainly be sick after eating it all. But they're going to get more than their money's worth with something, by golly, even if they have to make themselves sick doing it. It seems a kind of temporary insanity sets in.
Anyway, I can finally go home and settle into Missoula again. It's been weird being here while the family is in New Zealand and then Missoula. I feel rootless.
This essay has been on my mind for a while, and with lots of morning and evening free time in Helsinki in June 2011, I finally gave it a shot. I got the idea from a similar essay that appeared in the Montana Professor some years ago, written by UM-Western English Professor O. Alan Weltzien, about his experiences abroad, from his college years, up through his years at UM-Western. Warning: it's 3,000+ words. Yikes!
During the eight years of my tenure as a mathematics professor at the University of Montana-Missoula, I've followed a 'three years on, one year gone' pattern, with a Faculty Exchange to Finland in 2006-07 at the University of Helsinki, and a sabbatical spent in New Zealand during 2010-11 at the University of Otago in Dunedin. I've learned through these experiences that spending a year in a foreign country, working on research, with my family in tow, is something that I love to do.
However, I haven't always been interested in the world beyond Montana's borders. While growing up in Butte, my focus was on sport, my friends, and my studies, more or less in that order, and when I graduated from high school in 1992, I had little curiosity about the wider world. Moreover, I loved Butte and southwest Montana (still do), and so decided to stay on for college at Montana Tech.
In the summer prior to my first semester at Tech, my passion for outdoor sports was born. During the next four years, I rock climbed, road biked, mountain biked, skied, kayaked, and backpacked avidly, and through these activities, I developed lasting friendships, fell in love with my wife Jen, and got to know the national forest lands of southwest Montana.
I also began travelling around the Rocky Mountain region, for bike races, climbing and river running trips, and backpacking excursions. These were happy times, and looking back, I realize that many of my current values, including a love of travel, were born during these years.
When I graduated from Tech in 1996, I wasn't willing to sacrifice the outdoor lifestyle I had cultivated for a job that I had no passion for. Also, I had found that as my mathematical studies at Tech had become more advanced, I liked them more. So I opted to remain a student, accepting a graduate teaching assistantship in the Mathematics Department at Montana State University (MSU) beginning the following fall.
During the summer prior to the start of graduate school, my wife and I got married, and within a year my son was born. This was not a planned event, as I was still harboring dreams of a year as a ski bum, but it set the course I remain on to this day. In short, over the next several years, during which time my daughter was also born, the sense of responsibility I felt for my family kept me in school, on the path to a PhD, and moving toward my dream of being a college professor.
With my new family and work responsibilities, my focus shifted, including more activities that I could do at home. For one, I began reading classic literature, which I had avoided up to that point. A few 'great books' showed me that there are other ways to live fully than through outdoor activity and sport.
Among the books that effected me most deeply during this time were Nikos Kazantzakas' Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, several of Shakespeare's plays, and finally, Earnest Hemingway's short stories, and especially his memoir A Moveable Feast, which had me dreaming of dropping it all, moving to Paris, and becoming a writer (something that still sounds pretty good).
Through reading, I also discovered the allures and variety of human culture and widened my view and curiosity to include the globe. A deep desire to travel and experience the world was born in me at this time. Yet, I still hadn't lived outside of Montana's borders.
Also during these early graduate school years, my passion for mathematics continued to increase, thanks in large part to some excellent MSU Math professors, most notably Warren Esty, Marcy Barge, and Curt Vogel.
Thus, in an effort to be responsible, but also to follow my interests and to experience a new place, after finishing my masters degree at MSU in 1998, I decided to pursue my PhD in a different state. In the end, I settled on the University of Oregon (UO) in Eugene.
Eugene is a great place, with lots to offer a young family and an open minded young man such as I was. With the West Coast and the Cascades not far away and a diverse population of student families, there was plenty of opportunity for exploration, new experience, and friendship.
However, my studies at UO were all-consuming, and after an academic year of seven day work weeks, I found myself burned out and disillusioned with graduate school. So I quit, then soon after my father died tragically, and I went into a tailspin.
For the next six months, I attempted to 'find my calling' by trying out various new things, none of which gained traction. The people who knew me well were worried. Fortunately, I was smart enough to listen to some good advice and started seeing a therapist, who ended up helping me to such an extent that I could never repay him in kind.
Once I had regained some equilibrium, I turned my focus back toward my studies, and opportunities started coming my way again. Thanks to the encouragement of MSU Math's Graduate Director, and now Department Head, Ken Bowers, I re-enrolled at MSU, with a heightened level of energy and urgency (my second child had just been born), intent this time on finishing my PhD. While still in Eugene, I began studying for the PhD comprehensive exams scheduled for the coming summer in Bozeman.
During my PhD studies at MSU, I discovered that I had a talent for research and, more importantly, that I enjoyed it. I was also lucky in my choice of advisors. Curt Vogel, now an emeritus Professor of Mathematics at MSU, remains an internationally recognized researcher in my field, and the example he set as a scholar is one that I continue to strive toward.
In those final years as a student, I also continued my liberal education on the sly, by sitting in on, and doing the readings for, courses given by two masterful MSU professors, Michael Sexton from English and Gordon Britton from Philosophy. In addition to further broadening my point-of-view, this experience cemented my belief that for a student to develop a passion for a subject, connection with a professor is primary.
Reading 'great books' again also reawakened my desire for international travel. In my final year (2001-02), I applied for post-docs abroad and wrote a Fulbright proposal for New Zealand. But in the end, I took a post-doc position at North Carolina State University at my advisors recommendation.
Although the location in Raleigh did not excite me, the position was formative for me as a person and as a researcher, and it likely had something to do with me getting the job at UM. My post-doc advisor H.T. Banks also made a significant impression on me, with his no-nonsense approach to life and career, his passion and tremendous energy for mathematical research, and his globetrotting ways.
In addition, thanks to Dr. Banks, as I called him, I finally got to go abroad, on a ten-day research trip to Paris, France, with my wife in tow. It was a wonderful trip, and the experience put a taste in my mouth for more.
During my post-doc year, I also learned the practical importance of travel to the research mathematician. The typical mathematical researcher doesn't need a lab, or fancy equipment other than a computer, to do research. But given the loneliness of the discipline, the nature of mathematical ideas, and the importance of collaboration, the successful mathematician almost certainly must travel.
My post-doc was meant to be three years, but during the first, I saw that UM was advertising a tenure track job in my mathematical area of expertise. Given that my dream was to be a professor in Montana, that my wife, a native of Helena, also wanted to return, and that we both loved Missoula, I felt I had to apply, and with just one application in that year, I got the job.
The first three years at UM went by in a blur. I struggled, somewhat, getting my research program going, regretting that I hadn't fought harder for a second year of my post-doc, but also had some good luck, with a great PhD student in Aaron Luttman, inclusion in a successful NSF grant written by UM Math Professor, and friend, Emily Stone, and some good colleagues within the international community, who seemed to take an interest in my career.
Thanks to another close UM colleague, Math Professor, and now Deptartment Head, Leonid Kalachev, during these years we had two international visitors, both of whom would make an impact on my future work and career. The first was the gruff Russian Dr. Anatoly Yagola, whose graduate topics course yielded some very fruitful ideas that would take me years, and several journal articles, to flesh out. Next was Finnish mathematician Heikki Haario, who continues to be a collaborator, and whose semester at UM ultimately led to my successful UM Faculty Exchange proposal to spend the 2006-07 academic year in Finland.
The year in Finland was another formative one for me. We lived in Helsinki, which is a beautiful city, with architecturally significant buildings, a vibrant center, museums, and other cultural amenities. But also natural beauty, with pine and spruce forests throughout the city containing a maze of cycling/walking/skiing paths; and the sea, with swimming beaches and many nearby islands to visit. We had no car while we were there, so our experience was very much an urban one. Our kids went to the local schools, my wife did art at our flat, I worked, and we explored Helsinki in our free time.
We also travelled throughout Europe -- to Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Spain, France, Switzerland, Ireland, and around Finland -- but most of the year was spent in Helsinki, which enabled me to push hard on my research, something I felt obligated to do given the gift UM had given me.
I had come to Finland with a number of ideas that I felt strongly about, and some new areas that I wanted to explore, so there was no shortage of work to do. In the end, though the year was not particularly restful, it was extremely productive for my research and set the tone for the next several years of my work.
It was also a great cultural experience for my family and I. We all came to love Finland and the Finnish people. When we returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2007, we were greeted with a fair amount of doom and gloom in the news, and my daughter said, "If things get really bad, will we go back to Finland?" Returning home had made us realize that life in Helsinki had been very good, peaceful, and full.
Back at UM, work life was busier than ever. Over the course of the next three years I graduated two PhD students, got involved as a Co-Director in the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored Montana Ecology of Infectious Disease PhD Program, did as much research as I could given my limited time, and achieved tenure.
From the first, I knew that after three more years at UM, I wanted to take my first sabbatical in 2010-11 and spend another year abroad. New Zealand was my first choice, as it had been on my mind since I had applied for the Fulbright exchange as a graduate student.
Again, luck played a role in getting me there. My good friend Al Parker, who is a fellow MSU Math PhD, and now a statistician at the Center for Biofilm Research at MSU, was a post-doc of Dr. Colin Fox, a Professor in the Physics Department at the University of Otago in Dunedin and an expert in my research area. In my sabbatical application, I proposed to spend the 2010-11 academic year doing research in Colin's group, and because of the connection through Al, the arrangements went smoothly.
In August of 2010, we made the trip to the southern hemisphere with three bikes (in boxes) and five suitcases filled as much with outdoor equipment as with clothes. I had found an inexpensive place to live on Baldwin Street in Dunedin, which claims to be the 'Steepest Street in the World', and we settled in for a ten month stay.
What I hadn't expected was that pulling off our New Zealand experience would be significantly more difficult than was Finland. But in hindsight it's not surprising, since in Finland our housing was paid for by the University of Helsinki, I received full pay, and we didn't have a car.
In New Zealand, on the other hand, I received only 3/4 salary from UM, we paid for our own housing, bought a car, and traveled extensively, racking up 23,000 kilometers of driving in nine months (over NZ$4500 in gas alone). We also had a few additional, unexpected financial surprises that exacerbated the challenge.
Figuring out how to bridge the financial gap was one of the chief preoccupations (and stresses) of my sabbatical. We rented out our house in Missoula, I covered the lost quarter of my salary from my NSF grant, we took advantage of tax breaks associated with living abroad, and finally, we did what I'd hoped to avoid, refinance the house, which I've learned can be done from abroad.
Nonetheless, the experience was amazing and worth the stress and investment. First, Dunedin is a great city, reminiscent of Missoula, a university town of 120,000 people, but with a history and architecture more like Butte, once rich from the New Zealand Gold Rush. The weather in Dunedin leaves something to be desired, but the locals share a sentiment familiar to Montanans, "We like it this way because it keeps away the hordes." Indeed, outside and active on a rare blue-bird day, I would inevitably find myself thinking, "This must be the most beautiful place on earth." I'm convinced that if it had great weather too, Dunedin would be overrun with people.
Nonetheless, we didn't come to New Zealand to hang out in Dunedin the entire time. So we travelled throughout the country, going on several road trips, which mixed general car camping and sightseeing with hikes, backpacks, mountain bike rides and races, and, finally, surfing, for which Dunedin is well-known. Indeed, surfing became an obsession for my fourteen year old son and I, and in the end, we enjoyed over 90 outings.
Some of the highlights of our New Zealand travels include the famous Milford Track, the Routeburn Track, the Abel-Tasman Track, the Tongariro Crossing, cycling the Central Otago Rail Trail, mountain biking in Queenstown and Naseby, rock climbing in Wanaka and at Castle Hill, Cave Stream, the Catlins, Central Otago, the West Coast, Golden Bay and Farewell Spit, Te Papa National Museum in Wellington, the Ron Mueck sculpture exhibit at the Christchurch Art Museum, Rotorua area natural hot springs, sunrises in Kaikoura, every moment on my bike exploring the stunning Dunedin countryside, often with my wife, and every moment on the wild and cold southern Pacific ocean sitting 'out the back' on my surf board, taking in the view, my son nearby, at locales all around the South Island.
We ended our South Pacific travels with a ten day trip to Australia, where we had traded our Fairmont, Montana condominium for one in Sawtell, New South Wales. We brought the surf boards along and enjoyed our last surf sessions until who knows when in the warm Australian waters. None of us wanted to leave.
In addition to an ambitious travel agenda, I came to Dunedin with work goals in mind, so that when we weren't gone, I hardly missed a day at the office. However, on most days, I'd cut out early for a bike ride or a trip to the beach for surfing.
In terms of work, it wasn't as full-on as Finland, but it was my sabbatical year, and I was in need of some rejuvenation. Nonetheless, the day-to-day consistency resulted in a productive year; I wrote several papers, an NSF proposal, and got some new collaborations going.
I was also fortunate to have my current PhD student Marylesa Howard visit. Her and her husband Kaleb stayed for three months. It was great to have the company at the office, but also to share in their New Zealand experiences.
The year was a full one by any measure, and went by incredibly quickly. Still, in the end, after all of our visitors had come and gone, and our travels were over, we began to miss Montana, our family, and our friends, and I started looking forward to the myriad distractions of my UM job.
As it turns out, I'm writing this essay from Helsinki, in June 2011, where I've come to do research with Professor Haario, mentioned above, and his PhD student, former UM Fulbrighter Antti Solonen. To get here, I travelled from Dunedin via Missoula - where I stopped for half a day and dropped a suitcase and my bike - in one long brutal trip. As I write, the family remains in Dunedin and will leave soon. I wish I could go back to them and live the year all over again.
On the other hand, it's my first visit to Finland since I left in 2007, and I'm happy to find that my connection to the place remains strong. The time that I spent here with the family has some sweet resonance, and the research work and collaborative relationships built then live on. Someday I hope to return to Dunedin and feel the same.
I've been fortunate to be able to call some great places around the world home. This is thanks to the opportunities made available to me through my job at UM, to the support of my colleagues in the Department of Mathematical Sciences who've 'held down the fort' while I've been away, to my mathematical mentors, collaborators, and friends scattered around the world, and most of all, to the support of my family, especially my (almost) infinitely patient wife Jen.
I write this from a flat in Helsinki's center. I'm more than half-way through a three week stay, here to do some work with my collaborator Heikki Haario and his student, former University of Montana Fulbright exchange student, and soon to be PhD, Antti Solonen.
Back in Dunedin, Jen and the kids are about ready to board the plane home. With me gone, the burden of cleaning the Baldwin Street house and most of the packing was left to Jen. Not ideal, but this research trip will pay a month of my salary, which we need to make it through the summer. So basically, it's teamwork.
While here, I've missed the family terribly and wished I could fly back to Dunedin to be with them. More to the point, I've wished that we could live the year all over again. That's how good the living is/was down there. Since I've been gone, I've been calling it 'the Baldwin Street bubble'. It took leaving to really see it clearly.
Before we went to New Zealand, people said that it's like the US fifty years ago. Certainly, it feels like a simpler, less pressure filled, way of life. It feels like if Montana became its own country. A big difference was the schools.
For Alex, it went from stress and pressure at C.S. Porter (unnecessary for a 7th grader) to an enjoyable experience and no complaints in Dunedin. And Ellie wanted to stay in school until the day before she left Dunedin; for her, school was what she like best about her time in New Zealand.
In the States, we want our students to be competitive with students from other countries, so we increase the pressure on teachers, so that they'll push our kids harder, and the resulting atmosphere is definitely less enjoyable for the kids. I'm not convinced that we come out ahead with this approach.
As for myself, one of the things I'd really hoped for in Dunedin was that I'd come down: from a place of higher stress, intensity, and honestly, negativity. I felt like I had lost something important, that the person I want to be was just out of reach. It took months, but things finally shifted, and with that shift, my relationships -- with Jen, the kids, and myself -- changed in a positive way. My hope, prayer, and goal is that the change will be permanent.
Back in Finland: the alchemy of research is a mystery. You get a few guys (in this case) together with similar mathematical interests, some shared ambition, an addiction to new ideas and discovery, and see what happens. It's fun, but sometimes seems so unimportant, in the grand scheme of things, like racing bikes or something. The difference is it pays the bills and is the reason we've been able to have all of these experience. I was lucky to fall into this math research thing.