My short bio: I'm Allison Bishop, a computer science professor at Columbia and a quantitative researcher at IEX.

With Sasha Fradkin, I coauthored Funville Adventures, a math-inspired fantasy adventure that teaches elementary age children about mathematical functions. I am working on innovative ways to teach math and science at all ages. I introduced cryptography through storytelling in my TEDx NY Talk. Ask me anything!


Edit 4:45pm EST - thanks for the questions everyone! I'm heading uptown to teach.

Comments: 515 • Responses: 47  • Date: 

tempeh111905 karma

What are the answers to our final next Monday? :)

Edit: But seriously though, Professor Bishop is an brilliant mathematician and an engaging teacher. You should all listen to what she has to say!

allibishop1184 karma

nice try.

heavenshand465 karma

What would you say to your students who are reading this thread?

allibishop1238 karma

Homework is still due tonight. If you're not done, close this tab.

dmitra79445 karma

How did you go from hating math to being a math major and CS professor? (And why did you hate math in the first place?)

allibishop826 karma

When I was growing up, math seemed formulaic and uncreative. It seemed just like regurgitation: if I figured out how to e.g. add fractions, it would be the same method anyone else would use. In particular, I found calculus boring and resolved not to take any more after high school.

In college everyone was required to take one semester of math, so I took number theory, thinking it would be easy. Numbers are simple; how much theory could there really be? Under Jordan Ellenberg, it turns out, a lot. Jordan showed me the creative side of mathematics, and I was hooked! Meanwhile, I got rejected from the Princeton creative writing class.

Itroll4love168 karma

what do you recommend for someone that just really sucks at math no matter how much effort and time they put in?

Liquidmaximo197 karma

I'm not a professor at Columbia, but I find most people struggle at math because of a lack of understanding. Surprising, right? What I mean is that their foundation is weak. If you're in Calculus and struggle, identify your struggle and start back at the beginning. Most of the time, this would be Algebra and Trig. It takes time and many people simply won't put in the effort if they struggle. They'll just say, "I'm bad at math". Anyone can do math, it may take a particular person longer than another though. Learn the foundation and build on it. Algebra and Calculus can be understood as it doesn't take super in depth analysis. My experience is with electrical engineering and that's a different story.

bubbleyinsides67 karma

To add onto what is above, I'm currently a junior in college looking at teaching at a secondary level and what a lot of people don't understand is that outlook is everything. In certain subjects like math, people make gross exaggerations like you're either a math person or not. That's simply not true as anyone is capable of learning long division. However, society continues tells children that and so in turn they grow up and teach the exact same thing to their kids. Rather than this just being a personal problem with motivation it really is more of a societal problem. If you're told all your life you're just not good at math (even as a parent might do to comfort their child) you're just telling them they'll never succeed in it. Now, why would you ever continuously want to try at something you've been conditioned to understand you can't do?

allibishop62 karma

It is a struggle to do something that defies other people's expectations, especially when you are young. I myself have been told I was "bad at math". Luckily my mother, a math teacher, taught me to spot the errors in their logic.

kafkasniffer324 karma

How do you handle what seems to be a majority of people's "fear of math" (for lack of better term) when incorporating math in your story telling?

allibishop373 karma

I find it's best to not tell them it's a math story! One great thing about math is that it's embedded in everyday life, so you can connect it to things that people already identify with.

Nazetel93 karma

What, or who, inspired you to become a writer? What about a computer science professor?

My boyfriend is currently studying computer science, he's unsure of what he wants to do quite yet but I think that's okay. He'll figure it out. What advice would you give to people who want to get into the computer science field? What about those who'd like to write a book?

How long did it take you to write the book for children?

By the way, thanks for doing this for us. I'm usually too shy to participate and ask questions but I decided to try today so I'm really sorry if one of my questions is too nosy or worded bad.

allibishop115 karma

What, or who, inspired you to become a writer?

When I was at camp as a kid, we used to always tell ghost stories. But I didn't find them very scary. So I started to come up with my own. My whole cabin got nightmares.

How long did it take you to write the book for children?

We spent about a year on the initial draft, and then another year revising & getting it published. The most important part of writing a book is finishing it!

What about those who'd like to write a book?

As you can imagine, I was busy with many other projects during those two years. I think it's important for writers to have perspective on & experience in the world around them -- otherwise you just end up writing about writing.

omega-omega88 karma

How can I stop my daughter from hating math?

allibishop302 karma

Tell her that you hate math. Then hating math won't be cool anymore.

(stay tuned for more serious advice to come :) )

argeddit68 karma

I also “hated math” when I was in high school so I dropped it after I hit my requisite 2.5 years (I think I really just didn’t understand what its value was). I never finished algebra or took calculus or trigonometry. In college I was a political science major so I got away with only taking statistics.

Now I’m a lawyer and I realize that I probably would have been good at math and enjoyed it. In my line of work I can get by without it, but I deal with a lot of economics/econometrics expert reports and could add value if I understood the math.

Plus I want to exercise my formal logic muscles because they’re getting flabby.

What’s the best way to hop back into it? What websites/apps/etc. will not only teach me in an engaging way, but help me figure out where I should start?

allibishop86 karma

Great question! This is something I'm pretty passionate about.

In undergrad, my senior thesis was a book that would gradually introduce formal proof techniques to curious people with no more than a high school background, tentatively titled "Proof By Numbers". Princeton University Press was interested in helping me bring it to a wider audience, but then I left for grad school and didn't have time to go through their revision process. I plan to revisit that manuscript soon -- if you want to be a "beta" reader, please email [email protected] with "Proof By Numbers" in the subject line.

In the meantime, I'd recommend How Not to Be Wrong by one of my undergrad mentors, Jordan Ellenberg.

Converse_Lover_UK38 karma

Do you play vidya games?

allibishop83 karma

No, my little brother Pat (who's always had a dark sense of humor) beat me at Nintendo too many times when we were kids, and I lost the spirit.

zifnabxar34 karma

Thanks for doing this!

How do you come up with ideas for new research?

How do you handle when a research project you spent a lot of time on fails to work?

allibishop56 karma

Failure happens a lot!

I like to have multiple areas of research going at once, which increases the chance of something working. It helps that cryptographers are unusually good at turning failure into results: when a system breaks, we all learn something. (when we fail to break a system, we're also happy, for different reasons!) Often, these failures lead to ideas for new research.

Also, I have a favorite boxing gym.

remram23 karma

I noticed that your TEDx talk uses the gruesome example of hiring assassins to showcase the need for encryption. I understand that the example is far removed from reality (need to replace the head of the Rabbithole IT department to save some kittens).

How do you feel about the stance of some governments against encryption, and the argument that citizens who have nothing to hide shouldn't be using methods that can prevent interception from law enforcement?

allibishop58 karma

In my opinion, encryption and related tools are incredibly important even to citizens with "nothing to hide."

Even if I don't have sensitive information in my communications, I may still want to access the internet in such a way that my view is not filtered and targeted to my identity or my location, for example. Frankly I am as concerned about companies on this front as I am about governments.

Mandating that all information flow must be able to be monitored and outlawing things like end-to-end encryption would make it impossible for people to access information in an unlinked and "neutral" way. Imagine a world where everything you can see is tailored to your identity and history - without you having any way of knowing that this is happening! We need to give people tools to control how they receive information, not just how they send it.

adhi-22 karma

Can you tell us more about what it's like to work at IEX? As a quant for a fund that I assume is nonprofit what kinds of problems are you tackling? From what I know, most quants are trying to make more money for their firm.

How do you balance being a quant and a professor at the same time?

For context to others, IEX is a stock exchange founded by Brad Katsyuma to combat the exploitative methods of high frequency traders. He is the protagonist of Michael Lewis' Flashboys.

allibishop29 karma

For a sample of the kind of work I do for IEX, you can see my recent whitepaper: The Evolution of the Crumbling Quote Signal

I try to balance work in industry and academia because I felt that staying only in academia was handicapping me in understanding real world systems, and I wanted to work directly on things that have a positive social impact.

In terms of time and energy, it is a difficult balance. I teach crypto at night.

embiggen_Japan19 karma

What were the first projects you worked on that hooked you to CS, and why?

allibishop42 karma

I started my PhD in mathematics, but in my first year I also worked on a basic problem in distributed computing. The problem was consensus with malicious participants - which is basically, how do you get many computers to agree on something, even when some of them might be hacked. I had a lot of fun thinking about all the things that could go wrong, and that kind of thinking led me into cryptography.

It was exciting to me to realize that problems that seem to require imagining a long list of possible threats can actually be addressed systematically and rigorously. This made me realize that my mathematical background could be an asset in working on real world systems, and I decided to focus my career on practical applications, rather than studying theory only for its own sake.

GravityTracker17 karma

Hi, I have a degree in Computer Science, and I didn't hate math, but I wasn't very good at it. I think most of my issues stemmed from having errors in my work, as opposed to not understanding concepts. In programming, a lot of error get caught by the IDE (intellisense) or compiler.

My question is, do you think there is a need in teaching/learning math that relies more on concepts and letting software do the 'plug and chug' and making sure the calculations are error free?

allibishop24 karma

It's a great question. I do believe math can & should be taught more conceptually, with less emphasis on rote calculation. But we shouldn't take it too far, ignoring details that might affect real outcomes.

Trouble is, I don't think there's such a thing as software we can rely on to eliminate human error. The disconnect between theory & implementation is the whole reason that crypto & cybersecurity are very distinct & complementary disciplines.

MaceWandru17 karma

How can Computer Science and other STEM majors attract more women?

allibishop47 karma

For one thing, I think we need to push back against the myth that if you haven't started in computer science/STEM very young, you won't be able to keep up. Also, we need to do a better job of showing all students the role that STEM can play in domains they may already care about: like the role of mathematics in medical imaging, the role of computer science in disaster relief and response, the role of statistics in baseball, etc.

But actually we are starting to see more women in STEM majors in some undergrad programs these days, for example at Columbia, though this trend is far from universal. But retaining women in the academic pipeline and industry at large beyond that remains more of a challenge.

queen_pook16 karma

I'm not sure if you'll see this, but this AMA caught my attention because I'm studying Computer Science, and there aren't many women in this field, so I'm grateful I've found someone I can aspire to be.

What's some advice you'd give another woman trying to survive in this field? I'm so close to graduation, but I'm terrified of the real world setting, and that I'll get swallowed up in the male dominated field.

Also, I'm a CS tutor, and yet I struggle with math (I took PreCalc this semester and did horribly on every exam). How do I get better outside the classroom when I don't give a damn about math? I read your comments about applying math in a 'fun' way, but how do I get through boring coursework in the meantime?

allibishop29 karma

What's some advice you'd give another woman trying to survive in this field? I'm so close to graduation, but I'm terrified of the real world setting, and that I'll get swallowed up in the male dominated field.

First off, don't disqualify yourself from a game you want to play. If it turns out you can't do something, learn that the hard way. If you quit preemptively, you definitely can't do it. You don't have to commit to this industry (or any industry) for the rest of your life. The skills you pick up in tech will serve you well in whatever you decide to do. And there are lots of different kinds of jobs and different kinds of companies in this industry - it's ok to switch around until you find what suits you in a place with coworkers who don't suck.

GoldenArcher82315 karma

Hi! As a freshman CompSci major who also loves to read/write and isn't in love with math, I'd like to know in what other ways have you seen people blend the two besides writing for children?

allibishop20 karma

I'm encouraged to see the explosion of apps & games written by young people. I'm not an app developer myself, but I think interactive storytelling is a growing opportunity to advance both technology & culture.

On a totally different note, I like seeing CS researchers try their hand at automating humor. For instance, my colleague Lydia Chilton has a paper on AI joke writing!

On an other other note, you can come hear me perform nerdy standup at Caveat's "Symposium" in NYC!

MariaDroujkova12 karma

What storytelling techniques are your favorites, for science?

allibishop27 karma

For young audiences, I like to personify abstract concepts as living, talking characters. We took this approach in Funville.

For older audiences, abstract concepts are more likely to become plot devices, with dramatic consequences. So in my TEDx talk, attribute-based encryption became "the safe way to hire an assasin".

Either way, it has to be funny.

agamemnons11 karma

Can you sum up computer science in one sentence?

allibishop53 karma

Computer Science is the study of what can & cannot be computed, and how efficiently. An example of something that cannot be computed is a one sentence explanation of computer science.

lookmasilverone8 karma

To a computer engineering graduate (bachelor's) with average mathematical knowledge, do you recommend MS in CS or is it safer to just go work in some coding job?

allibishop9 karma

If you have the option to work in CS, I usually say "take it". You will learn more about what you do & don't know, and what areas of study interest you. If you then decide to go back to school, you have that option.

Otherwise, I typically only recommend a MS in CS to those whose undergrad degree is in something else.

anonymous_user_968 karma

How many math classes did you take to get a CS degree? Would you consider a B.S. in computer science to be worth it?

allibishop11 karma

My first two degrees were in math, so, a lot! That's not a typical path, but it gave me a strong foundation.

I think CS degrees and math degrees are both valuable, and I encourage people to take classes in both.

kafkasniffer8 karma

What are your thoughts on people using "crypto" to refer to cryptocurrencies rather than cryptography?

allibishop49 karma

People who think crypto=cryptocurrencies are like people who think french cuisine = Paris baguette.

nglnt6 karma

Hi can you fill out my course equivalency form for Crypto? lol

allibishop7 karma

Your email has been queued.

KingChadly5 karma

Any advice for a computer science undergrad looking for internships/work?

allibishop8 karma

Make sure they pay you in USD, not ETH.

vSpeedy5 karma

The more college math courses I take, the more I hate math. It's becoming more and more obscure memorization that I'll never need to use and forget a couple days after the final. How do I keep from hating math?

allibishop7 karma

I don't blame you! I wrote another comment about my dislike of memorization.

For me, it was a combo of finding the right teachers and the right context. You may want to try courses that blend math with applications that interest you.

dcipjr4 karma

What would you recommend for someone that wants to get into teaching CS?

I have a Bachelor's in Computer Engineering, a lot of software engineering and dev experience, and I've tutored in CS. I've also done technical training for junior team members at my current job.

I'd love to be a CS teacher, on the high school level—maybe even college, though I'm not so sure they'd take me seriously without a masters or PhD. I'm just not sure where and how to get started. I could take education classes, but my state (PA) doesn't have much in the way of certifications for computer science.

How did you get into teaching CS? Any words of wisdom for someone aspiring to teach CS?

allibishop8 karma

In general, I do think we need to encourage more people with your kind of experience into the classroom. Unfortunately I'm not an expert on getting through state certifications. You may be better off working backward: find the schools or universities nearest you and ask them how you can pitch in.

VenomB4 karma

I'm really late, but... How open are you to visiting libraries to talk with children and do an 'author reads' for a group of children?

allibishop5 karma

Very open! Email me or my coauthor Sasha!

Naknrukti3 karma

How did you find a publisher willing to sign you up when you had no background in writing?

allibishop8 karma

We sent a draft to Natural Math and they liked it! I hope you do too!

Ar-Curunir3 karma

Hi Allison! Nice to have another cryptographer on Reddit. Drop by on /r/crypto (for cryptography, not cryptocurencies) if you feel like it, we could always use more actual cryptographers there! As for questions, hmm, what crypto research have you been working on recently? (Feel free to dive into technical details)

allibishop6 karma

I'm one of the pioneers behind Indistinguishability Obfuscation. Which basically means if you can understand this comment, then I'm doing it wrong.

lel_u_suxss3 karma

Is math related to science?

allibishop13 karma

Math is to science as words are to language.

Haterophobe3 karma

Hello, Ms. Bishop!

I'm in a very similar circumstance to you right now - I've spent most of my teen life dreaming of writing, but now I want to be a cryptographist/infosec specialist.

My question for you: do you feel as if you approach what you do differently from your peers?

I'm taking a programming course in my high school right now, and oftentimes my solutions to assignments are vastly different from others in the class (who seem to have a much lower tolerance for varying approaches to similar but unique assignments). For example, we're currently making a program that determines end behavior of a polynomial - in approximately 200 lines of code, I check for degree (regardless of format - location of degree term doesnt matter), sign of the degree term, and error-check user input (of the polynomial). Many other students in the class are struggling to find the sign of the polynomial's degree term if the function is not written in standard form, and I think my writing background (and probably massive interest) are helping me a lot. There's not a lot of writers-turned-programmers that I know, so I'd be interested to hear what you think. :)

allibishop4 karma

My writing background helps me intuitively find the simplest explanation that makes sense. I try to avoid over-engineering for the same reason I strive for brevity.

The best advice writers get is don't be afraid to "kill your darlings". A lot of engineers need to be told that, too.

Haterophobe3 karma

Thank you so much for the response! It's nice to feel a bit of vindication.

Followup question: what do you mean by "dont be afraid to 'kill your darlings'" in reference to programming/engineering?

allibishop5 karma

Don't be afraid to:

  • Simplify your designs, eliminating things that you thought were clever but turned out to be less important.
  • Test your attack surface! Better for you to break your design than other people.

jamie_cross2 karma

Are you self publishing through Amazon/Createspace or did you go the traditional publisher route?

allibishop5 karma

We were published by Natural Math, and also did a Kickstarter for initial funding. So, neither solo nor fully traditional!

Impune2 karma

Which college were you affiliated during your time at the University of Cambridge?

allibishop5 karma

Churchill! Where the cool kids go /s

Uglyduckling752 karma

Did you always want to write children's stories, or was there another genre you were interested in writing about growing up?

allibishop5 karma

Growing up, I was constantly writing murder mysteries. Even today, in most of my stories, someone dies. (except in children's books!)

niciraci2 karma

Can you recommend a good quantitative reasoning core class for someone who is also not particularly thrilled about math?

allibishop5 karma

IMO: Probability or Statistics are your best bet, if well taught. (in many cases the teacher matters more than the subject)

solutionsfirst2 karma

what has been your most favourite talk/lecture to present?

this is likely similar to your fav topic to study

if not, any key distinctions you make?

you seem to have a talk from ias as well

allibishop6 karma

When I was invited to give the keynote at TCC in Beijing, I decided to talk about ways that crypto could better serve women & other underrepresented people. The reaction from a room full of mostly men was...muted.

madmax2992 karma

How do you feel about Columbia's stress culture? Do you think the CS students are overworked?

allibishop2 karma

I do think students these days are overworked. It's not unique to Columbia or CS, but I think we as a faculty and institution in general should do more to give students better perspective & balance. 5 years from now, nobody will care if you got a B+ instead of an A-. But it doesn't always feel that way at the time.

firefly63451 karma

So you teach basic computer programming in your books?

allibishop5 karma


siphonDrearZ1 karma

When did you know for sure what you wanted to do with your life?

allibishop2 karma

2030? I actually think people get too caught up on trying to know in advance.

unique-handle1 karma

What did you write your undergrad thesis about? How did that process sway your view of academia?

allibishop3 karma

Thanks for asking! I talked about my undergrad thesis in another comment.

My view on academia didn't really develop until later...

yaymayhun1 karma

How do you create balance in your writing process (technical writing for docs, presentations, vs creative writing) And can you provide some rules that you use for storytelling in science?

allibishop2 karma

I have 3 rules for storytelling in CS:

  • Make it funny.
  • Off by one errors are ok.

Darkhorse09341 karma

How did you go about finding an illustration / art style you liked for the children's book? Also you are doing the Lord's work, until science proves otherwise! Keep up the good work.

allibishop2 karma

The fine folks at Natural Math Publishing connected us with an illustrator we loved on the first try!

Chenja0 karma

Hey I’m applying to Columbia for computer science! If I get in will you say hi?

allibishop2 karma

Sure, come take one of my classes!