On Tap, A Strong French Lager with Mild Notes of Algebraic Topology: Meet our PIMS- CNRS* PDF (and homebrewer) Sacha Ikonicoff.

By Ruth A. Situma, Programs and Communications Manager.

*In collaboration with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research), the PIMS- CNRS PDF is awarded annually to a junior researcher who is French or has recently completed their Ph.D. in France. The 2020 recipient was Sacha Ikonicoff.

It’s been a big change for Sacha, a PIMS-CNRS PDF at the University of Calgary. For starters, the definition of “lockdown” is different. Sacha, arrived in Calgary in October 2020 and notes that there has been no “lockdown” in Calgary since the beginning of the pandemic. The lockdown in France was strikingly different, there was no movement allowed outside of apartments and homes without a dated, signed, and printed municipal ordinance. It had to indicate the prescribed purpose for leaving the home — going grocery shopping or exercising. Furthermore, Sacha and his partner could not leave their small apartment more than twice a week. He has been through six different periods of “limited movement” in 2020; either nationwide lockdown or quarantine periods. For him, Calgary’s highest level of restriction- closing public spaces and eateries, or working from home, was quite mild. “No-one forbids me from walking in the many parks around,” he says. An avid homebrewer, making and drinking the best beer possible, might just outweigh his quest for producing his best research on algebraic topology. It might be a good idea to open a bottle of beer before you continue reading!

Sacha Ikonicoff, with a bowl of whole cone hops.

What led you into your current field and how did you connect with Prof. Kristine Bauer, your supervisor at the University of Calgary?

I work in Algebraic Topology, a field of pure mathematics that studies shapes up to continuous deformation, through the construction of algebraic invariants. I was drawn to this subject during my Masters. I had taken a course during the first year of my Masters on a topic related to that subject and started reading about it in textbooks. In fact, there was no complete course on algebraic topology in my university in Paris, so I had to choose courses that were close to the topic and supplement my learning with lots of reading.

When I told my teachers that I would like to do a PhD in this subject, I was directed toward Muriel Livernet, a researcher at another university in Paris. She specializes in the study of a particular device called an operad, which is used to encode operations on objects of any type (sets, topological spaces, vector spaces, etc.). The aim of my Masters' thesis was to study an article that defined a general notion of divided power algebra over an operad. I continued my Ph.D. under the supervision of Muriel on the topic of operads, divided power algebras, and other related topics.

Original definition of divided power algebras- Cartan, H. Puissances divisées. Séminaire Henri Cartan, Tome 7 (1954–1955) no. 1, Exposé no. 7, 11 p. http://www.numdam.org/item/SHC_1954-1955__7_1_A7_0/.

In the Autumn of 2019, I started applying for postdoctoral positions in several universities. I was close to finishing my Ph.D. and my advisor gave me a brief list of researchers whose domain was close to mine, and who I could write to directly. When I wrote to Kristine Bauer, she accepted right away and pointed me to the existence of a PIMS-CNRS joint program for mobility between France and Canada. Our application was accepted, and we started working together in Spring 2020, explaining our research to each other well before I moved to Canada.

This is your first post-doctorate and in a different country. There are quite a number of differences in living, learning, and teaching. What aspects have stood out so far?

The main difference is that, in Europe, and especially in Paris, universities are in close proximity to each other, so it is easy to build collaboration across multiple institutions. In Paris, I could decide to attend a seminar from a neighboring university on a whim, and it would just be a suburban train ride away. Also, if a conference took place, say, in Germany, I could easily find the funds to go to that conference, since train travel is fast and inexpensive. Here, the nearest university with researchers in my domain is in Regina, almost 700km away. In Paris, there are about 20 Universities within that same distance, each with at least a researcher connected to my domain.

I’ve noticed that here too, you have to pay a registration fee for most conferences. That’s extra funding one has to find, and this does not usually happen in Europe. In France, each domain of research received national group funding. For example, all algebraic topologists in France are in a group that earns enough fundings to organize an annual congress and some smaller events around it. This fosters a lot of collaboration and a feeling of community for the many researchers in my domain working in France. These small differences give me the impression that it is harder to be part of a greater community of researchers here — though I should point out that this feeling might be an effect of the ongoing pandemic.

As for teaching, back in France, when lockdown struck, I was giving face-to-face tutorial assistance to students, and this type of teaching had to be done on the board and would have been difficult to continue online. Since coming to Calgary, I have taught Calculus 1 for the Winter and Spring terms. In the Winter term, I had a coordinator, which made the course really nice to teach, and the students seemed to enjoy it. It was completely online but still unfolded nicely — although I think we all missed the in-person contact. In the Spring, the same course was taught, twice as fast, and I did not have a coordinator to assist. I did not know what administrative work was required by the main instructor, or how “Canadian teaching” was conducted, so it felt much harder. Nonetheless, I feel like I managed to deliver the course correctly, and I’m sure I can improve my delivery next year!

What to do as you await your perfect ale? Work on computations and formulae for a current project with Prof. Kristine Bauer, or finalize the latest draft of your research before publication. Above, Sacha multitasking at home.

Have you managed to get yourself into a routine so far? What do you do to balance your research and life, and what according to you is your best discovery since arriving in Calgary?

In France, it was important to keep active, so I used to do some yoga every day. I continued when I arrived, but I haven’t been keeping up with this good habit. Another way to stay active was to go on a long walk every day — I haven’t kept that up either. I guess you could say that I am now an example of what should not be done: I start my work midway through my breakfast, I don’t make a point in going for walks often, but at least I take my meals at regular hours!

I still have a few hobbies that have kept me occupied after work. I play some music — I was a bass player in a band back in France, but I left it to focus on my Ph.D. I have since bought an acoustic guitar and keep playing. I like hiking, and it’s really easy to go for a hike in the Rockies.

Having said all that, my new main hobby is homebrewing. I like to make my own beer, come up with new recipes every time, handle the yeast culture, and I enter competitions. Since being here, I have won a few medals for my productions. So, technically, my best discovery is the craft beer and homebrew scene. There are so many great craft breweries around here, each coming up with new beers every week, and I have been able to improve my palate a lot. The community of homebrewers here has a club, and through their activities on Discord, I have learned a great deal since I signed up. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken me to learn so much about beer-making in France.

Above, the final gravity reading for Sacha’s Weizenbock. “Measuring gravity before fermentation and then just before bottling is what allows me to compute alcohol content. You can see my conical fermenter in the background and my red wing capper on the side”. Image credit: Sacha Ikonicoff.

Many homebrewers specialize in a particular kind of beer; there’s always a guy who only brews IPA, another who prefers maltier beers! But I think that if you asked any of my fellow brewers about my production, they would either say “Sacha brews weird beers”, or, “all over the map”. I like to try as many styles as possible and I don’t like sticking to one particular beet type. For example, I recently did a lemon-basil blonde ale with Norwegian “kveik” yeast; an Oktoberfest-style pseudo-lager with wild yeast captured from my beard hair (I know it sounds awful but it’s a fun microbiology experiment and the beer is really good!); a very classical peary cider, and a Weissbock, which is a strong German wheat ale. Before that, I experimented with sour beers (wild sours and a new strain of yeast called Lacchancea).

A selection of recent beers that Sacha has brewed. Left: Grodziskie — a historical Polish style beer, meaning “from the city of Grodzisk”. It is a light beer made only with wheat malts, this sample is mostly oak-smoked wheat malt. Centre: A sample of S. Pombe beer. Right: Mulakelam — a cardamom -chilli rice ale.

I also made a beer with a wild yeast called Schizosaccharomyces pombe (a yeast that has been extracted originally from millet beer in Africa, but not regularly used in modern brewing because of its tendency to produce sulfur in large quantities). Schizosaccharomyces is studied by microbiologists for other properties (it’s what is called a “fission yeast”, don’t ask me what that means!!). So I asked a professor at the UCal biology department if he could provide me with some of it. He very nicely gave me an agar plate, from which I revived a culture and managed to brew some beer out of it. All the dreaded sulfur off-gassed during fermentation (it did not smell good), and there’s no more of it in the final product, which was very interesting. I can’t say, honestly, if that particular beer was really good!

What are your stretch goals? What do you think is next for you, after your PIMS-CNRS PDF?

I really like working in research, so I am already applying for the next postdoc, tenure-track/ early tenure position. The main issue is having to relocate often. I live with my partner, who managed to follow me in Calgary and found a great position here. We don’t want to be separated and it’s tough for her to consider changing countries and applying for new jobs ever so often. We’d like to settle somewhere and start building a family. Ideally, I’d like to extend my contract in Calgary, because I enjoy working with Kristine Bauer a lot, and the pandemic prevented us from fully taking advantage of my time here. In the mid to long-term future, I would like to return to Europe, hopefully with a permanent position somewhere, but not necessarily in France.

Sacha Ikonicoff was born and raised in the Paris region in France. He obtained his mathematics license degree in 2014, and his pure mathematics master’s degree in 2016, both from Université Paris 6 — Pierre & Marie Curie (now “Sorbonne Université”). Sacha obtained his Ph.D., entitled “Level algebras and applications to algebraic topology” in 2019. He is a PIMS- CNRS postdoctoral scholar at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Sacha will be speaking at the PIMS Emergent Research Seminar Series, on November 10, 2021, at 9:30 AM Pacific. Details on his talk, Divided Power Algebras, can be found here.

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