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Interview with Chris Bick

18 March 2024
Raffaella Mulas interviewed Chris Bick for the interview series of the outreach committee.

Chris Bick is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics at VU Amsterdam. Additionally, he holds affiliations with TUM Munich, the University of Oxford, and the University of Exeter. Born in 1983 in Germany, Chris completed his undergraduate studies in mathematics at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. He pursued his PhD at the Max-Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization. Following this, Chris held various postdoctoral and faculty positions in the USA and UK before joining VU Amsterdam in 2020.

Raffaella Mulas interviewed him in March 2024.

Thank you, Chris, for agreeing to do this interview! I would like to start from your latest amazing news. You have been coordinating a successful Marie Skłodowska-Curie Doctoral Networks Grant that was awarded €2.5m by the European Commission. The name of the project is “BeyondTheEdge”. It aims to identify the role of higher-order interactions in network dynamics, and it brings together researchers from 18 partners from 10 countries across Europe and beyond. Can you tell me something about this project or share an anecdote which has not yet appeared in the news or on the project’s website?

Thanks a lot! Probably the most memorable thing about this project was that the proposal deadline was two days before the due date of my second child. So, my partner and I were hoping for the deadline to come before the baby. The deadline was Tuesday afternoon, and luckily, there was no baby yet. So, I was hoping for a day or two to relax after submission before the baby arrived. But Wednesday morning, my partner was like, “I think I can feel something”. She gave birth to a healthy baby that night and that was the real achievement! Getting this project funded is just the cherry on top of the cake.

Haha! This is a great anecdote. My next question goes way back in time: When did you decide to become a mathematician?

I always enjoyed doing mathematics in school, to figure things out independently, find patterns and so on. So, I thought it was natural for me to enrol in a mathematics degree. However, I do remember very vividly that the problem sheet we were given in the first week of real analysis was really tough. And I said to myself that if it continues that way, I would have to reconsider my choice. But it got better, and I guess the professors wanted to scare people away initially. I also found a nice crowd of people to discuss mathematics problems with, so that made things more fun as well. Even twenty years later, we still meet up!

Amazing! And when did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in academia?

I’m not sure whether there was a single instant. I have been enjoying the various aspects of being an academic, from research to teaching but also all the other related activities and doing things independently. But without a bit of luck and people supporting me along the way, it is unlikely that I would be where I am today!

Chris, you are a tornado of energy. Where do you get the energy from?

Haha! As a tornado, I hope that I’m not only leaving destruction in my path. On a more serious note, I really like learning new things and learning from other people whether mathematicians or other scientists. That is one of the things that drives me. And I really enjoy seeing other people grow and succeed. So, if I can support this, then I have no problem throwing myself into it.

Well, I can definitely say that you are great at supporting your younger colleagues! You are a good type of tornado. What advice would you give young researchers?

Maybe two things. If you are pursuing a career in academia, I think you should not underestimate that mathematics and probably science in general is a social enterprise. In the end, you are part of a community. So go out there, talk to people including the “big shots”, learn what they are interested in! In the worst case, you learn something new or get a different perspective on things. Second, I think that there are many fantastic career options outside of academia. So I always think that “leaving academia” carries more stigma than it should.

This is excellent advice. What is the thing that you like most about the mathematics department at VU?

Clearly, the people! I think we have a great department with many friendly, helpful, and collegial people that make it overall a fantastic place to work.

I agree! Since we are both “dancing mathematicians”, I would also like to ask you: Can you share something about your passion for salsa dancing?

Dancing is a hobby that I picked up when I was in my late teens, starting with ballroom and latin, and it somehow stuck with me. I was dancing throughout my PhD, but in the last years it has unfortunately taken a back seat. Hopping around postdocs did not make it easy to find a community and a dancing partner for ballroom and latin. So while in the UK, I started more salsa dancing. Dancing was always a sport rather than anything else. But in the end, I met my partner at a party where salsa music was playing!

Nice! Besides mathematics and salsa dancing, what makes you happy?

Easy when you have two small kids: Seeing them grow and develop! And taking things you throw at them to make their own and throw them back at you.  The other day, for example, I was making the Italian dessert tiramisu. Since my 3 year old daughter does not like the taste of espresso, I suggested calling it “papamisu” since “Papa” [dad in German] likes to eat it and that I would make “chocomisu” with chocolate instead of coffee for her. She then assessed that “papamisu” must be called “coffeemisu”!

This is cute! Shall we end with a little spoiler about our mathematics book for children?

Yes! Bears, soccer, graphs, hypergraphs — what else would you want to have in a book for toddlers? I am still curious whether it can compete with my kids’ other favourite books when I give them the first copy.

I really hope so! Thank you for this delightful conversation!