Monday, April 28th, 2014

Life at the Simons Institute: A Fellow's Perspective

By Justin Thaler

Having been a Research Fellow at Simons for six months now, I’d like to give a sense of just how positive the experience has been, and highlight some facets of life here that I find most striking. Without further ado, my favorite aspects of life at the Institute are:

The researchers. Without question, the best part of the Institute is the people who comprise it. One of my favorite aspects is the great mix of junior and senior visitors at all times. This is essential to the Institute’s vibrant research atmosphere, and it also makes the many social gatherings a lot of fun, whether they occur at the daily teas and weekly happy hours, at the receptions kicking off every workshop, or simply while hanging out at the coffee machine. This feature is particularly valuable for junior researchers, as we are able to significantly expand our network during our time here. Research is a social endeavor, and this will pay us dividends for years to come.

There is also an enormous breadth of expertise in the building at all times. Whenever I have a question that I can't answer, there is an expert's door I can immediately knock on, and there is always someone willing to hear out a half-formed idea or chase down a line of thought.

The building. I didn’t expect this to make a big difference, but it does – I’m pretty sure it’s impossible here to avoid interacting with other researchers even if one specifically tries to do so. The many wide-open interaction areas, which are complete with whiteboards, comfortable couches, and endless supplies of markers (not to mention the coffee machine) lead to a huge number of spur-of-the-moment technical discussions. Which brings me to:

The unexpected interactions. Consider the following scenario. Four researchers meet in the second-floor interaction area to discuss recent results on polynomial approximations of Boolean functions. A fifth researcher goes to get a drink, sees the group sitting around the whiteboard, and decides to listen for a bit. Finding the discussion interesting, she sits down and joins in for the two-hour meeting. The next week, two more researchers learn about the group through similar means. Thus forms a seven-person strong semester-long reading and research group. The above scenario is not hypothetical. I do not think this kind of interaction would have occurred elsewhere, but it is the norm at Simons.

The weekly meetings. Every week, each program has a meeting in which one or two visitors give an informal talk on a topic of their choice. These meetings, as well as the periodic open problem sessions that most of the programs run, are a great way to get to know other researchers and what they are up to in a friendly and informal environment.

The sense of community. This is a place where professors come to parties at postdocs’ apartments, and where groups of visitors periodically bike together up Centennial Drive into the Berkeley Hills.

It’s a center. I’ve met dozens of researchers through the many workshops hosted by the Institute, and no fewer than six of my prior collaborators visited for workshops last semester alone. Who doesn’t want to be at a place where everyone will come to you?

The Research Fellows program. This is a fantastic place to spend a postdoc. In my short time here, I have grown close to other Research Fellows who will be my peers and colleagues for decades to come. We work together and hang out together; some of us even live together. And I look forward to every Friday, when we all meet for lunch and one of us gives a short, informal talk on, well, whatever that person wants to talk about. Christos likes to say that Research Fellows are the lifeblood of the Simons Institute, but there’s no question that we get just as much in return.

Seriously, what's not to like about having no non-research responsibilities, while being surrounded by dozens of top researchers in the same boat?


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Letter from the Director
The Renovation of Calvin Lab: A Photo Essay
Current and Upcoming Programs
Program Retrospective: Theoretical Foundations of Big Data Analysis
Program Retrospective: Real Analysis in Computer Science
Official Opening of the Simons Institute