27 Jul 2018

Doing science the Colombian way: a story of diversity and inclusiveness

Now in the 6th edition, “Encuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria (ECCO)” (Colombian Meeting on Combinatorics) has grown from a small group of enthusiasts to an established summer school whose reputation for academic quality and inclusive community reaches far beyond Latin America. We wanted to understand the secret behind this success, so we asked a participant, a speaker, an organiser and a lecturer to tell us what makes ECCO special. By Olga Kuznetsova

 

The ECCO family. Photo courtesy of the organizers

Sophia Elia,  Berlin Mathematical School, participant

At the beginning of ECCO we made a community agreement to try our best to create a rewarding, welcoming experience for all. The agreement kicked off an open mindset for the entire conference. The friendly and passionate environment at ECCO is what I enjoyed the most. ECCO taught me that this kind of intentional acknowledgment of differences has a positive effect on the experience of doing mathematics.  We should ask ourselves how we can help every person feel comfortable and confident. I left ECCO feeling inspired and empowered, both mathematically and socially. I’ve made new friends and met new collaborators from all over the world at all different stages of their careers. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to participate.

 

Giulia Codenotti,  Berlin Mathematical School, contributing speaker

On the first day, we were handed the community agreement, invited to read it and discuss with the people around us. As I read it, I had to hold back tears. To me it was saying, all at once, you belong here, we want everyone to feel like they belong here, we’re all here to learn together, let’s build this community together. It was liberating.

If I had to choose one word to describe ECCO, it would be “different”. Everything about ECCO was different, from the moment we stepped out of the airport and felt like we were drinking the air rather than breathing it. On the first day, we were handed the community agreement, invited to read it and discuss with the people around us.  As I read it, I had to hold back tears. To me it was saying, all at once, you belong here, we want everyone to feel like they belong here, we’re all here to learn together, let’s build this community together. It was liberating. Not only did the organizers have this kind of community in mind; they encouraged everyone to take a moment to read and absorb this, and think of how to put it into practice!

 

From that moment on, everything fell into place. Each of the minicourses was held by an outstanding lecturer and mathematician, who managed to give introductions to deep mathematical topics which were accessible to everyone. Following every lecture was an exercise session; there, people with very different backgrounds worked together and questions of all kind always felt welcome. Throughout the day and at the social events it was easy to approach other participants, be they professors or undergraduates, both to discuss math and to make human connections. We learned some Spanish, or some English, or German or French and by the end, we all figured out a way to talk math or have fun together. If all else failed, there was always dancing in the evenings.

 

ECCO is the kind of conference that recharges your mathematical batteries for the year and fills you with a new passion. In two weeks, from a group of people who shared an interest in mathematics, a community was built. This community is the kind of math community we should strive to build every day!

 

Ana Maria Botero, TU Darmstadt, organizer

We put special emphasis on creating a conference atmosphere in which every participant would feel valued and appreciated, regardless of their mathematical experience, gender identity, nationality, race, or any other factor.

This year, I had the honor of being one of the main organizers of the sixth summer school “Encuentro Colombiano de Combinatoria (ECCO)” (Colombian Meeting on Combinatorics) which took place in Barranquilla, Colombia. Previous conferences took place in Bogotá (2003, 2008, 2012, 2014) and in Medellín (2016). The main goal of this school is to bring together young mathematicians from Latin America along with world experts in various fields of combinatorics in a culturally diverse, challenging and motivating environment.

The conference once again was a great success bringing together 160 participants fostering deep discussions and being the starting point for many excellent research projects. Organising ECCO 2018 took 2 years. We put a lot of effort in particular into organizational aspects. We put special emphasis on creating a conference atmosphere in which every participant would feel valued and appreciated, regardless of their mathematical experience, gender identity, nationality, race, or any other factor. For example, we selected participants who we expected to contribute to the learning and teaching experience in an active, patient, and generous manner. We also encouraged different encounters between mathematicians with various levels of experience: a mentoring program, mixed composition of exercise session groups, integration activities. I got emotionally very involved with the organization of the conference. Personally, I was aiming at creating a mathematical community which is different from what we are used to, a community which is above all inclusive. It was extremely satisfying to experience in ECCO 2018 that building such a community is possible.

 

Viviane Pons, Paris-Sud University, lecturer

The one word that summarizes it is inclusiveness.

The one word that summarizes it is inclusiveness. Both in Medellin in 2016 and in Barranquilla in 2018, in two weeks, the organizers managed to build a strong sense of community within the participants. People of all mathematical levels and nationalities felt welcomed and at their place during the conference. Efforts are made at every step to keep the spirit: from the community agreement to the problem sessions, the lectures, and the many social events. One question arose from the students: why do professors (me and others) come and teach at ECCO? They saw clearly what was the gain for them students but the reason WE would spend time and energy there was not clear to all of them. So let me tell you what I (and the scientific community as a whole) gain from that investment. Let me tell you why I went twice to ECCO and accepted to be part of the organizing team for the next one in Bogotá.

You can learn more about why Viviane wants everyone to do math the Colombian way here. She also organizes the WomenInSage workshop, which will be repeated in the near future, so stay tuned!