An interview with Alex Fink

Name: Alex Fink

Current Job: Reader

Scientific Discipline/Field: Algebra and combinatorics

Country: United Kingdom

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q,+, etc.): G

Website: http://maths.qmul.ac.uk/~fink/

Twitter or other social media handle: n/a

What does your job involve?

I do research in algebraic combinatorics with a geometric flavour. Here are a couple of my favourite objects to study. Tropical varieties are polyhedral “shadows” of algebraic varieties, the solution sets of systems of polynomial equations. By turning algebraic varieties into tropical ones, we transform the original complexity of their geometry into discrete complexity, which we hope turns out easier to understand. Matroidscapture the way that the answers to “which collections of things are independent?” have very similar structure even when “independent” has different meanings: for example it could be linear independence in a set of vectors, or the property of having no cycles among a set of edges in a network.

Beyond research, I teach undergraduate modules, most recently an introduction to abstract algebra, and occasionally graduate courses based on my research. Teaching is, honestly, fun—I’m a bit of a ham in the lecture theatre and the students frequently comment on my enthusiasm. The most rewarding part of the job is supervising PhD students; I’ve had two, give or take, at any given time.

Academic service roles within my department rotate every few years. My current role is director of the PhD programme. That means leading our PhD student recruitment and admissions efforts, and ensuring that our PhD students have appropriate training and research environment (and, inevitably, dealing with some bureaucracy). And there’s all the other activity of university research life: refereeing and editing for journals, giving research talks, etc.

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I received my BSc from the University of Calgary, my home town, in pure mathematics and computer science. While there I took part in three undergraduate summer research projects funded by NSERC’s USRA scheme: my thanks to the Department of Mathematics and Statistics for arranging these! These were wide-ranging exploratory projects; they led to my first publications, spanning elementary number theory, integer partitions, graph theory, and combinatorial games, and whetted my taste for research.

After the BSc I applied to PhD programmes in the US, and chose UC Berkeley largely based on advice from Calgary faculty. In the US model, at least in mathematics, it’s normal not to do a separate master’s degree before the PhD. This also meant that, like many students, I started the PhD without a precise research specialisation in mind, and finding a PhD supervisor was one of the tasks of my first year. When I first approached Bernd Sturmfels he suggested I keep looking because his research was too applied for my tastes, but in the end he agreed to supervise me jointly with Federico Ardila at San Francisco State, whom I’d met by taking his course on matroids. My current research directions were largely set in motion by the topics of my PhD, although they’ve grown some distance from those beginnings by now.

By the time I completed my PhD I hadn’t acquired any teaching experience, which many students do by running tutorials. In retrospect this was a strategic error; I think it made me less competitive for postdoctoral positions, for which applicants were generally expected to teach. Luckily I had one offer, to work with Seth Sullivant (also LGBT) at North Carolina State, where I began teaching and started a strand of research springing from Seth’s work in algebraic statistics. That position ran for three years, after which I started my current job.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

No. There’s one way it feels like it could have: at the end of each position I held, when I was choosing where to move next (and had a choice), one of the many factors I was considering was the LGBT-friendliness of the cities in question. In the end the best choice for other reasons proved acceptable in friendliness.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

Thankfully my colleagues have been accepting. I haven’t had any real reactions, neither negative nor memorably positive, unless affiliative effects count – it’s usually easy to get on with fellow LGBT academics and staff.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated.)?

My biggest role model was Richard Guy, who sadly passed away in March 2020 at the age of 103. I discovered his, Berkelamp and Conway’s Winning Ways for your Mathematical Plays in the Calgary Public Library when I was seven, and was immediately hooked by its liveliness and whimsy. I first met him a few years later, at what would now be called a math circle, and he was a major presence in my life from high school on. I sat in one of his courses as a high school student; he led two of my summer research projects; he was an invaluable source of advice as I moved on to my PhD.

Richard inspired me in his dedication to following his own trails in research. Much of his work was in “recreational mathematics”, a label some use dismissively; but to Richard all mathematics was recreation. He wrote not only with wit but with great care for the audience. He was also a staunch pacifist, and stayed in incredible physical shape even through his 90s, not just walking to his office on weekdays but climbing mountains in the Rockies.

Also, it was later than “growing up” but I can’t not mention Federico Ardila’s immensely inspiring work in increasing diversity in math. He implemented it in the courses I took as a grad student: they ran simultaneously at San Francisco State and the Universidad de los Andes, and all final projects were required to be international collaborations, which forged for me a valuable link to the Colombian combinatorics community. I’ve taken his axioms to heart: http://www.ams.org/publications/journals/notices/201610/rnoti-p1164.pdf

What are your plans for the future?

I’m fortunate to have a stable job here where I can advance my research agenda and continue with teaching and supervision. Though I don’t have an advocate’s zeal, now that I’ve reached this position I feel a certain duty to try to use it to further inclusivity, so I should be taking part in local inclusion efforts and more initiatives like this one.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for reading!

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