Enya Liu has written the following article as part of our series of Academic Interviews; featuring Ben Davison!
Dr. Ben Davison is an academic at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Hodge Institute. His research is in Donaldson-Thomas theory and Cohomological Hall algebras.
The following is my conversation with him. It was such a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with him.
Did you always have a fondness for mathematics?
“Definitely, though I think it took me a while to realize that it was something that I had a fondness for.”
Ben went on to explain that during his early childhood mathematics education, he didn’t find things like arithmetic particularly interesting. Instead, he would find himself daydreaming about symmetries, permutations of things and logic problems. It took a long time for someone to point out for him that the shapes and symmetries he was interested in were in fact mathematics!
During your academic career, who has influenced you the most?
“I think that that would have to be who made me seriously consider becoming a research mathematician; that would be my undergraduate supervisor Professor Frances Kirwan who I found, and still find, a great inspiration. The way she thought about, and discussed, maths was very different to everybody else.”
Ben completed a project with Frances during his undergraduate study. It focused on both complex and algebraic geometry and was his first time seeing that different branches of maths can actually interact and intersect in deep and interesting ways. This interconnectivity is something that he’s tried to focus on throughout his career and as such he sees this first project as being where it all started.
How did you find your time at university?
“I really enjoyed it. I didn’t just study maths, but instead maths and philosophy. It was a joint degree between the two of them, and I thought that that was great. I actually kind of missed that duality during periods where I had to focus my studies on one in particular. It definitely helped me cultivate two different sets of skills.”
As mentioned, one of the best things to happen to Ben during his undergraduate years was his exposure to research mathematics. He considers this all to be a life changing point in his life; evidently it was as he spent the following years continuing down that career path!
Which part of your career do you enjoy the most?
“I enjoy research, but I particularly like collaborating with other people. I really like losing track of time in front of a blackboard talking about a problem that a few of us want to get to grips with.”
Ben went on to explain that he enjoys the feeling of finally overcoming a problem that he’s spent time tackling over and over again. This feeling is compounded when he’s able to do it with others. He did admit that the write-up that follows the breakthrough can get a bit “out of hand” when something you expected to be a one page proof becomes eighty pages of technical mathematics!
Ultimately, Ben loves his whole job. He likes explaining things to people. Whether that be teaching or supervising PhD students or giving seminar talks. Without the social aspects of maths, he’d find it very hard to work out what it’s all for.
Do you have any tips for undergraduate students who wish to pursue an academic career in the future?
Ben recommends that students look for any opportunity that they can to do a summer project as they’re really good for providing a taste of what research maths is. Any opportunities that allows one to do a bit more outside of the typical undergraduate curriculum are good ones.
From a practical sense, if in the future you’re applying for something like a PhD then having that experience and knowledge at your disposal is an excellent point in your favour. When going through applications, this is definitely the type of thing that speaks to him.
Ben went on to stress that if you aren’t able to take part in a research project then you shouldn’t worry. You can instead do your own reading and research on areas that seem really mysterious and are of interest to you.