Wednesday: Mentor Matthew | 3

I’ve had several people in my life that have acted as mentors and have influenced me in some way or another. They come in many different varieties: some encourage and teach you, others demand and expect you to teach yourself. I can’t say I’m particular to either kind–both methodologies are respectable and appropriate in their own rights, depending on the circumstances and the mentoree. I can say, however, that Matthew belongs to the latter category.

Matthew is the person responsible for me getting my internship and the person that I work most closely with every day. There are a lot of things Matthew is, but perhaps the best way to describe my working relationship with him is to say that Matthew is an infinite source of mathematical knowledge. Uncountably infinite. Or countably. Whichever one is bigger, I don’t remember. I’ll have to ask Matthew.

I finished my junior year and only have to complete two more classes for an undergraduate degree in math. So, going into this gig, I thought I would be in pretty good shape to help out with some stuff they were working on there. Maybe implementing a new algorithm or working on a new physical model or something else that sounds like it would happen in The Social Network. That was my goal for the summer. About two weeks in, my goal changed to a more modest one; I just wanted to understand and appreciate all the different mathematics they use there. Currently, my goal is to have one conversation with Matthew in which I understand at least 70% of what he says to me.

My day-to-day is something as follows: arrive, wait, check on and/or finish yesterday’s stuff, wait, check email, wait, keep waiting, say hello to some other interns. Then, eventually, without fail, it happens. Matthew stops by my cubicle, exchanges a few words, and gives me a task for the day (or the next several days). It only takes, at most, five minutes. He stops by, speaks, then leaves. That’s it.

But for me, those five minutes are the academic analog of Rocky going the distance with Apollo in the first movie. As soon as he’s gone, I’m on Google, Wikipedia, opening textbooks, reviewing stuff I should know that I forgot, forgetting what he said to remember, remembering new things I never knew… The crazy thing about it is every day is like that. Sure, I understand some things he says, like hello and good morning, but most of the rest is Greek to me.

Maybe I’m over embellishing, but that’s pretty much how it is in my mind.   He gives me a task and my whole day is devoted to understanding and doing that task. Sometimes it only takes an hour or two to learn and do. Then I’ll check back in with him and we’ll get going on something else. Sometimes it takes a couple days or a week to do, such as the time I was told to modify a program to only work in two dimensions instead of three. I know that’s vague and doesn’t give you any idea of what I was supposed to be doing. That’s on purpose. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.

I should probably mention that Matthew is very open to questions–I just have so many that nowhere near all of them can be answered. I should also mention that the brief five-minute academic boxing match is not the only time I see or get instructions from Matthew. He stops by periodically throughout the day to check up on me; and, if I’m totally lost–confused about what I’m confused about–we’ll go to his office and he’ll explain some things to me.

I like the fact that Matthew treats me with respect and like a fellow co-worker, rather than an intern who needs to be baby-ed through everything. If there is a moral somewhere in this rambling, I guess it’s that you should expect to learn a lot from your internship, and sometimes a little tough love, so to speak, is the best way to go about it. I thought I knew a fair amount before I started, but I know much more now. I also know that what I know now will be very little to what I will know. I now know, by the end of this internship, I will know more than what I know now which is much more than what I knew then. But I’m pretty sure I’ll never know as much as Matthew.

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