There’s one group on campus without whom our educational journey would be so much tougher — the TAs! This interview is about one such individual, Thomas Martinez, a Ph.D. student and TA in the math department. Ardent about his research and an extremely skilled TA, Martinez shares more about his journey, what it’s like to balance teaching and research, about some fun moments and even some handy tips for doctoral students and undergraduates who want to pursue a doctorate.

BruinLife — Hi! To start off, would you like to share a bit about yourself?

Thomas Martinez — Sure. I am currently a second-year Ph.D. student. I grew up in Miami, and went from a pretty large public school to a smaller college, Harvey Mudd, for undergrad in math. Then I came for a Ph.D. at UCLA. The Ph.D. here is designed so that you get your master’s along the way, which is fairly typical for math Ph.D.s.

BL — Regarding your area of study, could you explain more about your research?

Martinez — My area of study is called algebraic combinatorics. We can start with the second word — combinatorics — and it is basically part of what the Math 61 curriculum is about. It’s the math of counting; we all understand counting objects, and further you can also understand the structure of objects either by enumerating things or by their space. Then coming to algebraic, we do this for algebraic things in the sense that we try to understand the underlying phenomenon that happens between similar structures. So what I do is the interplay of the two — I want to look at the combinatorics of algebraic structures.

BL — What made you become a TA?

Martinez — It is how TAs are funded unless you have a fellowship or are being supported by a professor, so I didn’t necessarily have a choice to be a TA. However, I do absolutely love being a TA because I love to teach. I started tutoring in high school, and actually teaching in college through a peer tutoring facility, and both were really nice experiences. In fact, I really like math and I hate the notion of how a lot of people grow up hating math — almost no one is lukewarm about it and so I just really wish to make people understand why I like math and make it so that people also don’t, at least, hate it.

BL — Does the workload become overwhelming at times, combining research and the work you do as a TA?

Martinez — Depends on where you are as a Ph.D. student because there are different stages: preparing for your qualifying exams, taking them, the research phase, then the result presentation. There is definitely a lot of workload, but we don’t take as many classes as undergraduates do — because it’s mostly research, attending seminars and maybe taking 1 or 2 classes. I’d also say it also depends on who you are as a person and managing your time is a very important aspect in all this.

BL — During research, since it’s all about new findings and there’s nobody to help you except your advisors or professors, what do you do when you get stuck?

Martinez — Yes, it is very tough. There are three things though: firstly you have to be organized, then you have to be knowledgeable and you have to be very persistent. Organized because you need to understand what it is you want to show and how you want to show it since there are a lot of paths you can go down. Keeping track of things is necessary because it’s very easy to forget what you have done. Number two, you have to be fairly knowledgeable in the sense that you don’t have to know everything when you begin, but you should know what it is that you know and know what it is that you don’t, so you can learn and ask the right questions. Lastly, you have to be persistent but also know when to quit. So it’s a very hard balance, which you can always ask your advisors about.

BL — What do you most like and dislike about being a TA?

Martinez — I like the aspect of interacting with students, my main way of connecting with the undergraduate students is by teaching them. I really enjoy the “aha” moments, kinda cliched but definitely those things stay with you. What I most dislike about it are the things that are more bureaucratic and outside of just being a TA, in the sense that there are some conflicts with the union and the math department. We actually went on strike about a year ago regarding funds, but there was retaliation from the department because the department itself was not funded. We still are making a little more than before, but it is not what we signed for. I guess that’s all I can say about that. One other thing that is not exactly what I don’t like, but more of something I’m worried about, is whether I’m doing a good job as a TA or not. I haven’t been in the chair of an undergrad for a long time, and it becomes a very hard question to answer and judge yourself.

BL — What has been your most memorable moment being a TA?

Martinez — One of my most memorable moments was when one of my students finished the exam for the Math 61 class and came up to me to shake my hand, and then almost 10 students came to shake my hand subsequently. That was the time I got my first handshake from a student and it was really sweet.

BL — Just for fun, have you ever helped a student during an exam?

Martinez — No, I mean I’ve answered their queries but never like that. In fact, I try not to because it wouldn’t be fair to other students, and I don’t want to punish those students by helping those that are, well, “brave” enough to.

BL — What would you like to say to the students who may be intimidated to ask questions to TAs and professors? And more personally, do you like answering questions asked by students?

Martinez — As far as TAs go, a lot of them want to connect with their students. In fact, in some TAs, it’s more obvious and you can approach them more easily. I’m sure this is true for all TAs because we have been in your shoes, not very long ago. We want to help and guide you, especially in a school like UCLA with such a huge population, where it may become difficult to get immediate personal guidance. Personally, I’ve had students come up to me even for just general advice— I do the Directed Reading Program which helps with that. But in short, TAs want you to come up to them and ask them questions. And if not questions, just talk to them about their research. It can feel weird to just casually talk to them, but they are more than willing to. For example — if you ask them why they decided to be a math Ph.D. student, they most definitely will talk! When it comes to professors, it’s the same thing. If they are making any effort to be approachable, it’s because they want you to reach out to them, ask questions or just ask for advice. So, in short, one general advice when you don’t know how to start a conversation, but you want to build a connection, is to ask people about themselves.

BL — That is really great advice. My question of “what are your future goals” is now changing to “why did you decide to be a math Ph.D. student and what do you hope to do in the future?”

Martinez — I hope to be a professor someday. This was something I realized through the research process that I’ve been doing. I find it really fun and interesting and I would like to be able to continue doing this and learning more math. Since I also love to teach, this combination of doing research and teaching is pretty much the only opportunity to do both. I definitely would like to teach combinatorics, but I’m still deciding on whether I’d want to teach at a liberal arts or research college.

Featured Image Photographed by Finn Martin/BruinLife

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