Finding Gemstones: on the quest for mathematical beauty and truth
< Previous Post Next Post >

Doing mathematics in a pandemic - Part II: Collaboration

This is the second post in a four-part series on adapting to the pandemic as a mathematician. See _Part I – AlCoVE, Part III – Teaching__, and _Part IV – Talks with OBS

The first aspect of academia to be affected by the pandemic was conferences; the second was in-person collaborative projects. That research collaborator you invited to speak in your seminar can no longer visit, and the potential for a two-day intense collaboration to kick off a new project diminishes drastically. You can no longer meet in person with your graduate students, at least not as easily. Little things like deciding when you’re going to hold the fall Putnam club meetings suddenly turn from a quick conversation in the math department hallway into a five-email exchange.

So I, like all other mathematicians, found ways to adapt. I’ll share a few things that really worked, a few things that really didn’t, and a few extra tools that made things nicer.

Things that really worked

  • iPad with an Apple Pencil. Tablets have turned out to be an essential tool for remote research collaboration. The Apple Pencil stylus mimics writing on paper very well, and it’s great for writing shared scratchwork real-time, like you would when working alongside someone on a whiteboard or at a desk. I immediately purchased an iPad at the start of the pandemic (thanks CSU!), and I opted for the large-screen 12.9 inch size so that I had plenty of space to write mathematics and share it virtually.
  • Zoom. This almost goes without saying at this point, but it’s the best videoconferencing software I’ve tried so far. Its video and audio quality and the lack of lag really are impressive, and important for the natural flow of conversation.
  • The Zoom whiteboard. If you click “Share Screen” in a Zoom meeting, the first option is to share a whiteboard that other collaborators can write on as well. It’s a little finicky, but Zoom has been improving it, and here are some tips:
    • Saving. Always remember to click “Save” on the whiteboard annotation menu before ending the Zoom meeting. I wish Zoom did this automatically, but it unfortunately does not. It saves them as .png files, one for each page, in your Zoom folder, which should pop up after you leave the meeting.
    • Names popping up. If you see the annoying feature of someone’s Zoom name popping up by where they’re writing, click on the three dots dropdown on the annotation menu and click “Hide names of annotators”.
    • New page. You can click in the lower right corner of the whiteboard screen to make a new page.
    • Unsharing and resharing. Zoom used to have the extremely annoying feature of forgetting what was on the whiteboards when you stop sharing, so that if you share something else and then go back to sharing the whiteboard, it’s blank again. They have recently fixed this, and now it remembers the whiteboard for the duration of a Zoom meeting even after it is unshared and shared again!
  • Overleaf. Overleaf is a great tool for writing collaboratively in LaTeX, complete with an online editor with a preview window that is well-synced with the LaTeX code.
    Its file sharing system uses git for version control, so mathematicians who prefer working locally to working on the cloud can clone the git repository to a local folder. I recommend using the Overleaf project to share files, as opposed to say Dropbox (see below), so that everything is in one place.

Things that didn’t really work

  • A physical whiteboard to point your webcam at. This was the first thing I tried in order to collaborate over Zoom, before obtaining an iPad. It’s hard to set up in a way that it’s easily visible with no glare, and you end up getting back pain from hunching over so your face is in the screen sometimes as well as the whiteboard. I believe it can be done correctly if you have the right webcam and office setup though.
  • Writing something down on a piece of paper and holding it shakily up to your webcam. I admit, I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. But no. Just no.
  • Email. An email is great for setting up a Zoom meeting. Not so great for doing collaborative mathematics. It’s slow and cumbersome and a Zoom meeting is almost always better. The exception was when an email served as a way to share a quick idea before you forgot it, so that you can bring it up again at the next meeting.
  • Dropbox. In my experience, any time a Dropbox folder is set up and shared, it’s later forgotten about and then everyone has to ask each other what the Dropbox folder was called. Someone would make an extra Dropbox folder containing a single file consisting of a picture of a diagram they drew, and then after viewing it everyone forgets where the picture went. It’s also not very good for simultaneous editing of papers, in terms of version control. (See Overleaf above.)
  • Google Drive. See Dropbox.
  • Any video chat client that is not Zoom. I have heard some people saying they like Microsoft Teams, but I think it’s safe to say that avoiding Hangouts or Facetime or Facebook video chat is a good idea. The lag and connection issues alone make these alternatives very inconvenient, and they don’t have sharing or whiteboard capabilities.

Little things that are worth it

  • Paper feel screen protector for iPad. I didn’t even know this existed until the holiday season, when my husband surprised me with this. It is an iPad screen protector that makes writing with the Apple Pencil feel actually like writing on paper. After installing it, I’ve found that writing on the tablet actually is preferable to me to writing on paper, and this is coming from someone who loves paper and doubted tablets would ever truly replace them. It’s a little thing, but it made a huge difference to me.
  • Zoom chat or Google Hangouts (outside of meetings). A chat client to send quick ideas and messages, start impromptu Zoom meetings, and just say hi once in a while, is in my experience very useful, and can help avoid some of the email overload of the pandemic era.
  • Zulip, Slack, and Discord. For larger groups, an organized chat client like Zulip, Slack, or Discord can be very helpful. Threads can be sorted by topic and it is easier to follow what is going on. Zulip is my personal favorite, but I’ve had good experiences with all three.
  • Google docs/sheets. Sometimes you just need something a little simpler than Overleaf to manage tasks or jot down ideas. Google docs has pulled through for me in such situations.
  • Being kind, being silly, and having fun. There’s a real lack of human connection these days, and it’s always good to check in with collaborators to see how they’re doing, put up a funny Zoom background, or watch someone’s cat walk across their keyboard. Little things like this, for me, help to keep my job fun and worthwhile.