Summer Research Program with Professor Iddo Ben-Ari using Overleaf
Professor Iddo Ben-Ari is an Overleaf Advisor who is based at the University of Connecticut. This year, Iddo decided to run a summer research program with eight students and wanted a platform that enabled them to collaborate and give feedback easily. Being an Overleaf Advisor he benefited from the Overleaf premium account, we also upgraded two graduate students participating in the running of the program to premium during the course of the program. The premium accounts helped organize group work enabled the organisers to share comments with students.
Overleaf is an excellent solution for anyone running a workshop or research program where collaborative writing using LaTeX is beneficial. As Overleaf is a cloud-based LaTeX platform, it minimizes support requirements helping summer research camps like this get off to a flying start. We asked Iddo a few questions about his background and how the summer camp went…
What's your background and how did you find out about Overleaf?
I am a mathematician working in probability theory. I found out about Overleaf after looking for a solution for installation-free LaTeX. I’ve used it on and off for some time now. All my students knew about it prior to the research camp and some were already using it.
What made you think of Overleaf as a useful tool for your summer research program?
I knew it is was a very efficient, reliable and convenient tool for collaborating and working with students. We could start to work collaboratively right away, without having to install any software, use any cloud storage services, or send files (not even templates!).
What was the focus of the research camp and who were the attendees?
The focus was on research problems in the general area of Markov chains and their applications, allowing students to experience research on different facets of this immense area, both applied and theoretical. In one project we studied the notion of memory in random sequences. Another project, studied a theoretical model for biological evolution with some interesting asymptotic structure. A third project studied a mathematical concept of coupling of Markov chains.
The attendees were eight undergraduate students selected after a national search, looking for students whose interests and mathematical or more general scientific backgrounds match the program goals, and which will benefit the most from participation. We also looked to form a group of students with diversified skills (like computer languages) and backgrounds (physics, biology, computer science), to enrich the research experience, their peers and their mentors.
Did Overleaf live up to the expectations?
Absolutely. We loved it. I will probably move most of my work to Overleaf based on the experience. Overleaf made the collaboration with the students easier than ever, and eliminated the problems involving file transfers and conflicted copies. We could edit and present anything on the fly from any computer.
I have used both v1 and v2 and look forward to v2 coming out of beta as there were a few features that are not yet implemented in v2 that I’m used to such as syncing with dropbox. Another challenge we experienced related to the attendees being on the free accounts as to view history users need to be on the paid plan. Other areas that could be improved are in more intuitive user interface, and more functionality and control for team leaders. I’d also suggest short-term team accounts with full functionality.
What features did the group find most useful?
Ability to easily collaborate on the fly.
Is there anything Overleaf could have helped with such as providing certain teaching materials?
Students quickly found templates for their work with no difficulty (even different templates for different groups). I was not aware of any LaTeX-related issues they were not able to find answers to on their own.
What feedback did you get from the attendees on Overleaf?
“I found Overleaf to be very useful for collaboration but would have liked the automatic environment closure that is present in ShareLatex; when collaborating the environment needs to be kept closed so that other users can continue to compile and check their own input.” (Emily)
“Overleaf was good. The only thing I would say is bad is the history feature. It's confusing and needs a revert button or something. “ (Mason)
Overleaf Comment: It’s great to hear feedback on Overleaf features, we’re delighted that the collaboration features from ShareLaTeX are now integrated into v2, which also has history features available for premium account holders.
Do you plan to run future workshops?
Aside from work in the classroom what did the group do outside of the classroom?
We hiked around the campus, had buckets of ice-cream, painted the rock, and - so I’ve heard - the students had some culinary adventures in the dorms.
Any tips or challenges that you would like to share that may be helpful for other users thinking about running a workshop/summer research program?
Wow. Running a research camp is a serious undertaking, from preparing a proposal to getting funding, then recruiting students and staff, arranging all logistics, running the camp, and also finishing up after camp is over. Then starting all over again, I guess. In between, I had an opportunity to help, if just a little, in shaping a group of talented students as future scientists through joint work in a stress-free environment.