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The RSI (Mathematical) Experience August 5, 2009

Posted by Akhil Mathew in General, Mathematical research.
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The 2009 Research Science Institute ended last Friday.  Since we the bloggers want to reach other high school students, I will briefly explain what the RSI experience is like.  I’ll only be able really to describe the mathematics program, since it is very different from the science and engineering ones.

RSI math is all about doing research in mathematics.  You (who I will assume for now are a prospective RSI applicant)  are assigned a mentor, who is usually a graduate student (though in some cases you also meet with a professor) and a project that depends on  what you write on the application.  The projects this year ranged from several combinatorial
and graph-theoretic problems to four algebraic and representation-theoretic ones. Unlike contest problems, RSI problems are actual open questions where the answer is unknown.  This makes the program exciting and enjoyable, since you are discovering something new.

At the same time, the atmosphere of the program is relaxed.  Since everyone has a different project, people take time off to help each other, e.g., with programming difficulties.  There are no tests or grades of any kind.  The mentors repeatedly emphasize doing mathematics for its own sake rather than worrying about science fair competitions. 

A typical day is spent in the Student center, which has a computer lab, or in the library.  Each day, you meet with your mentor to talk about your progress.  In my case, I lacked (and still lack) much of the background for my project,
so our meetings often consisted of general algebraic or category-theoretic discussions; one of the main things I gained from RSI was a greater familiarity with the use of category-theory or “abstract nonsense” to prove results very easily.  Fortunately, you are not expected to complete all possible work within six weeks, a good bit of which consists of either understanding your problem or writing the final paper.  Many mentors are happy to continue discussing the project by email after the program ends.
So, all in all, I highly recommend applying to this program.  I had a great summer, learned plenty of interesting mathematics, and met a host of new people who cared  about the subject.

 I also recommend this post by Tanya Khovanova on the subject of RSI
mathematics, for other opinions.

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