February 18, 2022
Colin Aitken was born and brought up in San Jose, California. Before coming to the University of Chicago, he was at MIT where he studied math and performed in the Shakespeare Ensemble. He has been a graduate student at UChicago for five years in the Department of Mathematics, though he sometimes hangs out in the Department of Economics. His field of study is algebraic topology.
“I study ‘higher algebra,’ which is what you get if you loosen the rules of arithmetic a little bit.” He explained, “Maybe you’re in a world where x + y and y + x aren’t exactly the same, but if you squint and squish things around a bit you can’t tell the difference anymore. What’s still true in this world? Does math still work? It’s been exciting to find out!”
We interviewed him about his experiences below.
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
When I first thought about grad school, UChicago wasn’t even on my radar because I was hoping to end up closer to home. But I applied here anyway at the urging of my then-advisor, and really enjoyed the visit weekend despite the February weather. My final decision ended up coming down to practical considerations like the cost of living and the fact that I had a friend moving here, but it has turned out to be the right decision in ways I never could have predicted at the time!
What is something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago?
I’m really proud of the paper I’m currently writing! I don’t think it’s going to change the world, but it’s been my first time thinking really hard about a single idea over a period of multiple years, and the process has been so frustrating and so rewarding in such beautiful ways. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m really, really happy with the outcome so far.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
I love to play volleyball, either in an organized league or just casually with friends! This quarter I’m trying out intramural “wallyball,” which is a chaotic and bizarre sport but also so much fun! As a six-and-a-half foot tall man, I find that telling people I play volleyball makes up a bit for the inevitable disappointment when I admit I don’t play basketball.
What are your plans post-UChicago?
My research is in a very abstract part of math (“let’s consider a sphere living in negative twelve dimensions” is a sentence I’ve had to say more than once), so I’ve been surprised to learn over the past few years that what I really care about is applying math to concrete, real-world problems. Right now, I’m hoping to do something in the development economics world, and I’m fortunate that UChicago has given me the tools to learn about that even as I work on my thesis in a completely different field.
What support have you received at UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
A couple of things come to mind. My second year here I had a mental health crisis and took some time off to seek treatment, and honestly everybody from my advisor and the lecturer I was TA-ing for to the Student Wellness professionals and the department staff who helped me figure out the paperwork were so understanding and caring and helpful. Their kindness helped me to get the professional help I needed, and their (especially my advisor’s) support was absolutely key to helping me reintegrate smoothly into academic life when I returned. I know this isn’t everybody’s experience with this sort of thing, so I’m really grateful to everyone who chose to be there for me not just as a mathematician, but also as a human being.
The other support I’ve honestly been surprised to receive was from the development economists in the economics department, Booth, and Harris, who have been incredibly welcoming and gracious with their time as I’ve tried to learn more about their fields. Even as a student outside their department, people have been willing to meet with me, answer my (sometimes dumb) questions, and provide genuinely helpful feedback on research ideas and projects I’ve proposed.
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
I would say you absolutely must talk to people, either students or faculty. Every university has its own unique culture, resources, traditions, and schools of thought, and it’s really impossible to understand what it’s like to actually experience these differences without talking to somebody who has. It’s especially helpful if you come with specific questions! (That said, people at universities tend to be very busy, so not everybody you reach out to will have time to meet with you. Please don’t take it personally if this happens!)
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
Honestly for me faith has been a really big part of this. Jesus taught me to strive to love and celebrate my students and colleagues in the fullness of their humanity—ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so many other pieces of ourselves that shape our lives. It’s certainly eye-opening to internalize the belief that every single person you will ever meet is made in the image of God! In practice life gets messy and even the best-intentioned people hurt each other, and my faith has also been instrumental in teaching me how to admit I was wrong, to try to make things right, and to work to do better in the future (as well as to have grace and patience with people who’ve hurt me.) I know Christianity doesn’t always function like this, but I’m really thankful to the people who taught me over the years that it can and it should.