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Learning to code from the masters: the Macaulay2 Workshop at MPI MiS (2018-07-03)
Macaulay2 is a software system widely used by researchers in algebraic geometry and commutative algebra.
Last month, our institute hosted a dedicated Macaulay2 workshop organized by former MPI MiS postdoc Eliana Duarte Gelvez (now at the Otto-von-Guericke Universität Magdeburg), together with Heather Harrington (University of Oxford) and Thomas Kahle (Magdeburg). Around 60 participants from around the world took part in the program, which offered them a unique opportunity to develop their coding skills by getting in touch with the experts.
The Macaulay2 workshops have a long-standing tradition and have been organized in several places around the globe (http://www2.macaulay2.com/Macaulay2/Events/), mostly in the US. Eliana explains how she came to the idea of organizing such an event at the MPI MiS:
"I took part in one of these workshops during the third year of my PhD, I enjoyed it very much, mostly because of the special format these workshops have, involving lots of hands-on sessions when the participants can work on projects in front of the computer. At the end of the week, I was surprised at how much I had learned and how many new skills I had mastered."
For these reasons, she proposed to our director Bernd Sturmfels to host one of the workshops in the series at MPI. "We have so many events here at the institute, so I thought it was time for hosting a Macaulay2 workshop too. We took care of the organization together with Thomas Kahle from Otto-Von-Guericke Universität Magdeburg."
The workshop format is very special and quite different from the traditional mathematical research conferences. What makes it special is the amount of time reserved for working on concrete problems.
The first day started with contributed lectures by young participants. After that, there was ample time to work on projects in small groups:
"We had a total of thirteen projects, with four participants each. Every project had a mentor, usually an experienced researcher, in charge of coordinating the efforts of the team and of guiding the younger or less experienced participants."
The workshop programme also included Q&A sessions about technical aspects of the software, giving the participant the opportunity to get a quick answer about coding problems and bugs. According to Eliana, this was one of the most important aspects of the workshop:
"What often happens in our community is that different researchers end up writing the same code, or may have a similar problem they want to address. The collaborative aspect of the workshop was what really made a difference. When writing software, one needs to make sure that the end product is easy to use, and that the code is easy to read and to edit. Discussing and working together ensures that such aspects are taken care of."
On the last day, the various working groups reported on the progress made on their projects.
Among the workshop participants was one of the Macaulay2 developers: Dan Grayson. During the week he created an online project collaboration space for the workshop on GitHub, where each project has its own folder. The files are being constantly updated, and may at some point lead to packages being released.
Looking back at the week, Eliana is pretty satisfied with the outcome:
"Several participants approached me and the other organisers saying they really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the format of the workshop. Most importantly, they told us it was a very productive week and they could learn a lot. This is exactly what we wanted to achieve!"