February 8, 2023
Mark A. Olson was born in Buffalo, New York, before moving to San Luis Obispo, California, at age 11. He came to UChicago immediately after graduating from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s in mathematics and a minor in computer science. This is his second year of study in the Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAM) PhD program. He is currently researching Liouville quantum gravity, a topic in theoretic probability, with Assoc. Prof. Ewain Gwynne. We interviewed him about his experiences below.
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
I applied to graduate school and decided which program I would attend during the height of COVID. Because of this, I couldn’t visit any schools and relied heavily on the experience of my mentors at Berkeley in order to make my decision. One of those whom I was closest with shared that if he were to begin his academic career over again, University of Chicago would be his first choice for graduate school. One of the others had received his PhD from UChicago; he said that he was very happy with his choice at the time and thought that he would still make the same decision today.
What is something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago?
In my program, the first year of study is spent focusing on coursework with the objective of providing students with the foundation necessary to understand and engage with modern mathematics research. I was skeptical of the claim that just one more year of coursework appended to four years as an undergrad could accomplish this. Now, after going through this program myself, I am actually amazed at how far I have come as a mathematician in just nine months. The level on which I am able to engage with other students, our faculty, and visiting speakers has gone up dramatically.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom?
Outside of the classroom I am a member of a science graduate student a capella group, The Histones, which I am directing this year. I also enjoy playing tennis, playing the piano, and participating in book clubs.
What are your plans post-UChicago?
After graduating from UChicago, I would like to continue to study probability and mathematical analysis. At the moment, this desire has not manifested itself through any concrete plans.
What support have you received at UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
The most important support that I have received at the University has come from the other students in the CAM program. First and foremost, they have become very good friends. They have also helped me a great deal in my development as a mathematician; by collaborating with them, I have both broadened and deepened my understanding of various topics. In addition, the faculty of the CAM program worked diligently to help me and the other students in my cohort to find our place at the University. The director, Mary Silber, has a ‘student well-being first’ philosophy which has helped me to feel valued by the department.
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
When I talk to others about UChicago, they inevitably ask about the winter; I answer that it is cold, but my experience here has been well worth whatever discomfort the weather has caused.
Next, I think that I would like to tell them about the experiences that I have had interacting with the faculty here. In CAM, one is admitted to the program and then finds a faculty member to work with before the end of their first academic year.
Uniformly, the professors that I reached out to were very friendly. They were easy to schedule meetings with and totally engaged while we talked. They were enthusiastic about the projects that they were considering for their graduate students. It has been my impression that there is a culture among the faculty at UChicago that values the faculty-graduate student relationship highly. Beyond formal one-on-one meetings, this attitude has been evident during my conversations with them in office hours, seminars, department events, and other social functions.
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
While at the University of Chicago, I’ve been involved with the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT), which focuses on the recruitment and retention of students from marginalized backgrounds. In particular, I’ve been involved with the LGBTQ+ team, which focuses on the recruitment and retention of gender and sexual minorities.
I think that, in the world of academia as it relates to diversity and inclusion, there is still a lot of room for people who are going to be ‘the first…’ or ‘the only….’ I think that it’s important to foster communities where these people not only feel safe but also respected and celebrated.