April 2, 2019
Alan Chang was born in Minneapolis, MN, and grew up in San Jose, CA. He received an BA in mathematics from Princeton and is now in his fifth year of the University of Chicago’s Mathematics PhD program. We interviewed him via email about his experiences at UChicago.
What have you been studying or researching as part of your program?
I study geometric measure theory. My research deals with a wide range of geometric objects, from familiar shapes such as circles to very weird ones such as the Koch snowflake that have fractional dimension. (Search “fractal” on Google for some pretty pictures.)
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
The math department has some of the best mathematicians in the world, and I came here hoping that some of their brilliance would rub off on me. The Princeton math professors I spoke to most frequently all had great things to say about UChicago’s math department. One of them did both his undergrad and PhD studies here.
Describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.
I came to Chicago not knowing what kind of mathematics I wanted to study. But within a few years, I published some research papers and gave presentations on my work both within the U.S. and abroad. I am very grateful for the support and guidance of all the professors I have interacted with, especially my advisor Marianna Csörnyei. It is thanks to their help that I have grown so much as a mathematician during my time here.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
Some activities I have recently done in my spare time include cooking, juggling, making crochet stuffed animals, coding, learning languages, and taking selfies.
I also enjoy playing piano. I find it a great way to relax my brain after thinking too much about mathematics. I have performed in the music department as a member of the Piano Program. In addition to playing classical music, I like transcribing and arranging video game music for the piano. These days, if I play a tune from a Super Nintendo game soundtrack (e.g., Super Mario World, Star Fox, Donkey Kong Country), no one will recognize it. That’s when I realize I am old.
I learned to solve the Rubik’s cube in 2004 and have been attending speedcubing competitions since then. I love how the Rubik’s cube provides a very concrete example of what in mathematics is called a “group.” Several competitive events, such as blindfolded cubing, rely heavily on the mathematical theory of groups. In the summer of 2018, I spent one week in Oaxaca co-teaching a workshop for high school students on Rubik’s cubes and mathematics. This was done through a collaboration between STEM-Out, a program funded by UChicago’s Global Initiatives Office, and Clubes de Ciencia México.
In general, I enjoy learning to do new things. I am not saying I am good at any of the things I listed here, though!
What are your plans post-UChicago?
I would like to become a mathematics professor. If I change my mind, I hope I’ll still be able to devote plenty of time to mathematics education and outreach. Many people do not think math is fun or exciting, and I really want to change their minds!
What support have you received at UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
Financially, I have been supported by the math department and the NSF graduate research fellowship. Academically, the support from professors and other students has been invaluable. I have learned a lot of new mathematics from graduate classes, reading courses, and student seminars. When I have a mathematical question outside the field I work in, I can often find a friend who knows the answer and is willing to take the time to help me understand it and point me to helpful books and articles.
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
Everyone here works very hard, which motivates me to do my best. The intellectual atmosphere at UChicago is very special for this reason.
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
Through my studies, research, and teaching, I have interacted with people from all kinds of backgrounds. What brings us all together is our excitement for mathematics. Despite tales of lone math geniuses, mathematical research is a highly collaborative activity. It is important that mathematicians feel comfortable doing mathematics with one another and that the mathematics community does not discourage anyone from pursuing mathematics.