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An Interview with Bryna Kra

Scott Hershberger

Every other year, when a new AMS president takes office, the Notices publishes interviews with the outgoing and incoming presidents. Bryna Kra’s two-year term as president will begin on February 1, 2023. Kra is the Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Mathematics at Northwestern University. Notices contributing writer Scott Hershberger spoke with her in June 2022. An edited version of that interview follows.

Notices: Are there any takeaways from your time on the AMS Board of Trustees that you’ll bring to your role as president?

Kra: I have learned that change is very slow in the math community, but there is momentum for change. In some sense, I think, this is a very reasonable position to have, although it may frustrate people that sometimes the AMS is not quicker to react when there are problems. The AMS is a huge and intricate organization that serves many different cohorts. This means that it doesn’t serve any of them perfectly, but it actually does serve many of them quite well. I think we are moving in a good direction. We are serving broader, more diverse cohorts in a better way. But this will not happen overnight.

Notices: What will be your priorities as AMS president?

Figure 1.

Bryna Kra is the incoming AMS president.

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Kra: My priority is to support a broader swath of the community, especially to support them in their research. For example, people at primarily undergraduate institutions don’t have great access to research funds, and even small funds could help quite a bit. Many institutions—especially historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, minority-serving institutions—do not have sufficient access to our journals and MathSciNet, which is an integral tool for doing research these days.

There’s often a drop-off in support for mid-career mathematicians. You’ve gotten tenure, and now you’re supposed to be suddenly completely independent and able to get everything done. It doesn’t always work that way. Finding ways to support this group of mathematicians is important, and the AMS needs to work to identify what types of programs would help this group keep research momentum going.

Notices: The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced everyone’s lives in so many ways. Thinking about its impact on the math community, what do we need to change moving forward?

Kra: It’s had a huge impact, especially on students and postdocs, many of whom were denied opportunities to meet more senior people in the field and to establish new collaborations. There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution because different people were affected in different ways. But the AMS can help. I think part of it is in-person meetings and small grants so that people can set up collaborations that were put on hold or never happened.

We’ve all learned that we can live with some amount of online interaction. It might be that we need to have some online meetings regularly and take advantage of better technologies for them. Hybrid meetings might be a possibility when we figure out how to make them work. And in-person meetings, I think, are still at the moment the easiest to really make work. But we need to find ways to make them work better and be more inclusive.

Notices: What specific steps do you hope the AMS takes during your presidency to live up to the recommendations of the March 2021 report from the Task Force on Understanding and Documenting the Historical Role of the AMS in Racial Discrimination?

Kra: We need to be involved more heavily with training the next generation. No one program will be able to address all of the issues that the Task Force raised, and we need to think about many ways to effect changes. As an example, Northwestern has a post-baccalaureate program aimed at historically underrepresented groups in mathematics, giving them an extra year of courses and professional support to help them go off to graduate school. I think there need to be more programs like this across the community; the AMS can act as an incubator and a facilitator, making connections and supporting these programs. I’m sure there are many ways we have yet to try to advance the recommendations of the Task Force.

Notices: In her interview as outgoing president, Ruth Charney mentioned declining membership as a challenge that the AMS faces. To you, what are the key reasons why being an AMS member is valuable today?

Kra: The resources that the AMS offers only exist because of the hard work of many people. By being a member of the AMS, one is indirectly supporting MathSciNet. The AMS (along with Duke) supports MathJobs, one central listing place both for faculty and for applicants on the job market. All of the books and publications, the many conferences that we organize, the large number of fellowships that we give—all of that is only possible because we have such a large membership, and a large number of people who volunteer and work for the AMS.

In addition, the AMS has a voice in advocacy for mathematics. Our large number of members gives us some clout with policymakers, making our lobbying for the support of mathematics and mathematicians more effective.

Notices: What do you view the AMS’s role to be in advancing sustainability within the math community and in the world in general?

Kra: Some pure mathematics research will be used in sustainability. It might not be used today, or even next year, or even 10 years from now, but some of it should have applications in the future. The AMS’s role is to support research that will eventually produce valuable outputs that affect the environment and sustainability.

Figure 2.

Bryna Kra in her office at Northwestern University.

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And I do think that the AMS needs to be thinking about our footprint, our travel being the major one that we incur. It’s a careful balance between the benefits of meeting in person versus the environmental cost.

Sectional meetings used to be more local than they are now. They have become national meetings. And I think there’s a lot of reason to move them back toward a more local approach. Not everybody needs to attend every meeting in person, and holding hybrid versions of our sectional meetings might make it possible for more people to participate with a lower environmental impact.

Notices: The AMS has been working to build connections with mathematical scientists in business, entrepreneurship, government, industry, and non-profit (BEGIN) sectors. Can you talk about the vision for those efforts?

Kra: Mathematics is a unique way of training people. We are not just training people to reproduce academia—we’re training people to go out and interact with the world and work in business and industry. Lots of places are looking for the analytic skills that come with being trained as a mathematician, even if it’s not the exact research that one worked on for a doctorate. The AMS has a crucial role to play in making connections between the research community and industry.

Notices: How can we make that vision a reality?

Kra: The reimagined JMM is an opportunity to provide more professional development and more opportunities for employers to be looking for employees. I think the AMS can play a role as a matchmaker and as a builder of connections by running further programs to match the needs in industry with mathematicians who have the skills and the analytical expertise.

Notices: More broadly, what do you hope for the future of the reimagined JMM?

Kra: It’s a really exciting time because the JMM has a huge impact on many people. I had job interviews at the JMM a long time ago. I’ve met people and worked with them because of special sessions there, so it’s impacted my career throughout. I hope the reimagined JMM is going to do this for more people. It’s a great place for people to get support that they might not be able to get locally.

The reimagined JMM will have more than 15 partner organizations, meaning that there will be many options for participants. Having all of this in one meeting creates more opportunities for networking and for collaboration than any single society meeting could offer.

Notices: The 2022 ICM was originally planned to be held in Russia—a very controversial choice from the start due to Russia’s human rights abuses. What lessons should the AMS and the entire math community draw from this situation?

Kra: Just because we’ve been doing something some way for a long time does not mean that it’s the only way to do things. And perhaps this was an example of that.

As an international mathematics community, we need to think broadly about how we design meetings from start to finish. I hope that future ICMs will be in places where it is easier for everybody to feel comfortable participating. Location matters. And perhaps even more important than just thinking about the location, it is important that every organizing committee bring diverse perspectives, ensuring that every meeting is a welcoming and productive experience for all participants.

Notices: Do you think the public perception of math has shifted in recent years, especially since the pandemic started?

Kra: Unfortunately not. I think math’s public image continues to take a beating. Some of it is not our fault, and it’s beyond our control. But some of it is within our control. We can explain what we do in our research without using technical jargon. We really need to make a better effort to communicate the importance of what we do.

Notices: To you, what should be the role of the AMS as an organization in trying to change that public perception?

Kra: Some of the AMS’s publications are for a broad audience. Some of the posters that we make explain where math is used, and you see them hung up sometimes in a high school. We support a lecture for high school students, congressional briefings, things like this. But I think we can do more to bring a broader understanding of why mathematics needs to be supported.

An interview with Ruth Charney, the outgoing AMS president, appeared in the January 2023 issue of Notices of the AMS.


Figure 1 is courtesy of Bryna Kra.

Figure 2 is courtesy of Antonio Auffinger.

Photo of Scott Hershberger is courtesy of Scott Hershberger.