What I learned from Jon

I first met Jon and Judy at their house in Halifax, where Judy fed me a delicious split-pea soup, Jon talked math, dispensed advice on topics ranging from apartment hunting to paper publishing, and we discovered a shared interest in discussing politics and current events. I was to begin an AARMS postdoc in the math department at Dalhousie with Jon as one of my three co-supervisors later that summer, and was in town looking for a place to live for the coming year and completing paperwork. This day remains in my memory not just because it typified Jon’s warmth and generosity, energy, and wide range of interests; but also because I knew from that meeting that I had made the right choice among my postdoc options.

Like many new PhDs, there was a lot I still needed to learn about the profession of being an academic mathematician. Jon (along with my other co-supervisors, Karl Dilcher and Keith Taylor) was an excellent mentor in this respect. Group meetings and individual meetings always included advice on where, how, and when to present our research in both traditional and non-traditional venues, prioritizing calls on our time in an actual academic setting, where to find the best food around town or at a conference location, etc. One key to Jon’s success at mentoring and building research communities, as others have noted, was that he treated his mentees with an implicit assumption of confidence in our mathematical abilities. It seemed effortless on his part, but made all the difference to those of us with backgrounds that make us sometimes feel like outsiders in math or in academia.

During my postdoc, Jon modeled a collaborative approach to research that I knew was important, but had little previous experience with. At the same time, he maintained a strong focus, only working on research questions that were of interest to him. Of course, Jon’s research interests were famously broad and interdisciplinary. In this, Jon also modeled an approach to research that fit well for me. Completing a dissertation at the intersection of a couple fields within mathematics, I left my PhD program feeling confident in the breadth of my general background, but not feeling like an expert in any one (however narrowly-defined) topic, as I had heard should be the case. Furthermore, the questions that particularly intrigued me from my PhD research pointed in new directions for me, yet I had also heard that drifting away from one’s thesis topic was an unwise early career move. Jon encouraged me to continue to broaden my knowledge base and research interests during my postdoc, however. I next took a tenure-track position at Acadia, a small university with a strong commitment to teaching and moderate support and time for research, which can sometimes feel far away from everywhere else. Focusing on interdisciplinary research questions that I am particularly excited about has been a good strategy for me for maintaining a productive research program.

Jon continued to mentor me in the several years following my postdoc, introducing me to other researchers with shared interests at conferences and always generously providing further career advice whenever I consulted him. Jon’s specialty was not just connecting ideas, but also connecting people. My research interests took me in a different direction for a couple years, but when I returned to the computational mathematics community this past spring, Jon immediately picked up as before: connecting me to other researchers, posing intriguing problems and looking for mathematical overlap, and dispensing sage career advice. When I last met Jon, he and Judy again welcomed me into their home, with characteristic warmth, generosity, openness, and offers of well-curated food and drink. I will miss him, both personally and professionally. [Eva Curry, Acadia University, Canada]

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