The UnKnot Conference

Two weeks ago, the first UnKnot Conference was held in Granville, Ohio at Denison University. And no, UnKnot does not stand for a conference devoted to the properties of the trivial knot, which would be short conference indeed, but rather for the Undergraduate Knot Theory Conference. Organized by myself and Lew Ludwig, of Dension, it brought together undergraduates and faculty interested in knot theory. A variety of undergraduates and graduate students who had either done research on knot theory or were doing research on knot theory through an REU or through their home institution participated, as well as faculty who had either already worked with students or who would like to work with students.

UnKnot Phogo

The three-day conference was preceded by a two-day workshop sponsored by the Ohio Section of the Mathematical Association of America,  designed to prepare those with less background in the field for the conference. The conference included 110 registrants, and 55 talks, 35 of which were by undergraduates. There was also some math theater and a final discussion of open problems in the field. For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of the conference was the high quality of the student talks. Many of the students had watched the on-line videos called “Technically Speaking” which were developed by Lew Ludwig to teach undergraduates the basics for giving successful talks. It was evident that students had benefited greatly from them. I found the main talks to be excellent. Sometimes, when I attend a conference, I feel like I cannot follow the intricacies of the talks that are in areas in which I  do not specialize. But at this conference, everyone was attempting as best they could to make their talks understandable to a very general audience. That meant that I could understand essentially all of it. I learned a lot about areas like virtual knot theory and ropelength, areas I do not normally research. It was very useful. I came home with lots of ideas. The students got to know many of the key researchers, as well as getting to network with each other.

There were nine students from the current SMALL Williams summer research program there, including Katherine Hawkins, Rob Silversmith, Charmaine Sia, Dan Collins, Bena Tshishiku, Noel MacNaughton, Oliver Pechenik, Sneha Narayan, Jenn Townsend, plus one other Williams student, Andrew Lee, as well as SMALL alums Tim Comar, Joel Foisy, Sam Taylor, Laura Starkston and Max Engelstein, and Williams alum Todd Shayler. Allison Henrich, who is currently running a SMALL group and Jorge Calvo, an ex-Williams faculty member, were also there.

The conference was funded by NSF. They seemed very intrigued with the idea of a conference aimed at undergraduates and undergraduate faculty interested in doing research with undergraduates, but with a particular research focus. It is easy to imagine this model spreading to other areas of mathematics as well. We hope to continue the conference every other year, assuming we can find schools willing to host it. I recommend organizing your own undergraduate conference in your own area of research. It was a huge amount of fun!