Fall 2004

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From the Director

The IMA Annual Thematic Program

Douglas N. Arnold
Doug Arnold,
IMA Director

The IMA achieves its mission of fostering interdisciplinary mathematical research through a wide variety of programmatic mechanisms: annual thematic programs, summer programs, Hot Topics workshops, and so forth. The largest undertaking is certainly the annual program, which each year runs from September through June and is dedicated to a broad research area. In this column, I will describe some of what goes into an annual program, and how the themes are chosen. I hope that some readers will consider submitting their ideas for future programs.

People and programs. The most important features of an annual program are (1) the community of mathematicians and scientists assembled at the IMA and (2) the program of workshops, tutorials, short courses, etc. The community of visitors is diverse, but bound by a common interest in the theme topic of the program. It includes a half a dozen postdocs who are hired in conjunction with the program and long term visitors, some of whom join the IMA for the duration of the annual program, while others stay for perhaps a quarter or a month. This core group of visitors is supplemented by short term visitors who come, e.g., for a workshop and stay an additional week before or after, and by faculty from the University of Minnesota and the Twin Cities area. The resident community is typically comparable in size to an average math department, with between 35 and 50 members, but has some unique characteristics: though it is scientifically diverse, everyone shares a common interest in the annual theme, and most members are fully focused on research, without teaching or service responsibilities, while they are at the IMA. As a result, there is a wealth of seminars and the daily coffee hour bustles with discussion. There is always a critical mass at the IMA.

The formal program of an annual year consists of a series of high intensity events, primarily workshops and tutorials, when the number of visitors doubles or triples, and there are typically several talks a day. In recent years, the annual program has kicked off with a week-long tutorial in September introducing participants to some aspects of the cutting edge of research in the thematic field. Though the new IMA postdocs are the obvious target audience for these tutorials, they have proven very popular with a wide range of scientists. The series of lectures by top experts in the area, starting with the basics but paced for active mathematicians and scientists, enable participants from a broad range of backgrounds outside the thematic area to get to the cutting edge of the research area quickly. Last month, the audience at the tutorial lectures on Mathematics of Materials averaged about 65. The audiences for the workshops that follow typically include a mix of specialists in the workshop topics and related areas, long-term visitors, IMA postdocs, and local scientists from academia and industry. We place strong emphasis on discussion and interaction at the IMA, and structure the workshops accordingly, with a relatively light schedule of talks, lots of scheduled discussion periods, ``Second Chances'' sessions where the whole audience revisits the themes that have come up in the workshop, poster sessions, and just plain free time for people to talk.

The synergy between the annual thematic program and the IMA postdoc program is surely one of the great strengths of the IMA. During the program year an IMA postdoc has a chance to intereact with a tremendous variety of scientists relevant to his or her research area: some junior and some senior, some from mathematics and some from an area of application, some with a similar background and some coming at the same questions from a very different perspective. Because many are long- or medium-term visitors, and because the IMA environment and program are designed to facilitate communication, there are ample opportunities to interact and collaborate.

Program selection. The choice of topic for an IMA thematic program is crucial to the effectiveness of the Institute. The success of the IMA hinges on its ability to choose program areas which hold promise for major impact on the mathematical sciences and on applications areas, and to choose organizers who will be best be able to realize this promise. The ultimate responsibility for these choices lies with the IMA Board of Governors, and is, in fact, among their most important responsibilities. The Board is informed by input from many sources, including our Participating Institutions Council, our Industrial Advisory Committee, and, most important, the interested scientific community. A program to begin in September of year n begins as a preproposal discussed at the Board of governors meeting in year n-4. A successful preproposal is developed into a complete proposal over the following year, and the program choice is announced in the fall three years before the start of the program. Details about what is expected in a preproposal can be found on our Program Solicitation webpage, linked from the home page.