Interview: Long-time LaTeX User


Christina Laternser has a B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics and an M.S. in Economics. An experienced LaTeX user, she wrote her thesis on hyperbolic geometry using it, as well as her economics thesis. She has worked in data analytics, application development, and lectured in mathematics. She finds some time to do academic research as well.
While Christina has developed and managed global intra-company team collaboration tools over LAN, effectively a stripped-down version of Authorea, this is her first introduction to the collaborative platform for research.

So, when did you first learn about and start using LaTeX?

I started using it my junior year of college, in 2009. So I’ve been a LaTeX user for a good five years.

Basically my advisor came to me and he said: “Look, you’ve got to learn this. If you’re serious about a career as a mathematician,” - which at the time I was - “there’s just no two ways about it. You have to learn LaTeX. It’s the tool a lot of mathematicians and scientists use to publish their papers.”

How was the learning process?

My first encounter with programming was Java. It was part of our curriculum for the math degree, so programming was not new to me at the time. So when I learned about LaTeX and started using it and immediately saw what it could do, I was really excited.
At first I was like, “aw no, I have to learn another programming language” - you know what college students are like.
But in hindsight, I’m glad I was pushed to use it. It’s such a versatile tool.

What do you like about it?

What I like about LaTeX is that if science has an artistic aspect, it would be LaTeX for me. I consider it a canvas for my “art”, I suppose. It gives you a tool to present your data in whatever way you want. Imagination is the limit.

What, if any, problems have you found with LaTeX?

So for my thesis, I had a table of contents and I wanted it to link to the actual pages, so you could just click in the PDF and go directly to the sections. I had a difficult time to get that to work. It really screwed up my tables; it wouldn’t let me force tables in certain places anymore. My regression tables were all over the place.

There are packages you can use for real number notation, stuff like that. But there isn’t one for the certain type of notation I had to use. So I actually had to import I think the Russian alphabet and use that in my math paper which was kind of weird.

What do you primarily use it for?

I used to use LaTeX to write papers and hand in my homework, especially if it was math heavy, so I didn’t have to write it out and it would be more legible for my professors.

I use it mostly for compilation of scientific papers. It’s so much easier to program in LaTeX if you have a lot of formulas and tables. It gives you a better way to represent your information, whereas Word is very limited in what it can do.

Surprising applications... You can run different applications through it, it’s incredibly powerful. Like I said: imagination is the limit, if you can think about it you can do it. Which is really awesome.

Have you collaborated with other researchers using LaTeX files? How did that go?

It’s often quite problematic, surprisingly, because even the people I work with on research papers, even my faculty members, they don’t use LaTeX. So I have to send them the PDF. Luckily, I do work with an advisor who is a little tech-savvy, so he actually has a PDF editor. But it’s cumbersome because he’ll send it back and there will be notes in the paper, but it’s not quite clear which are his notes, what did I put, and it screws up the page alignment.

It’s quite miserable. It’s not really easy to leave comments in PDFs.

Even if my colleagues did have the ability to read LaTeX documents, I have so many tables and graphs and things, they would need all these other documents so they could compile the paper.

Reading your LaTeX file is a little overwhelming sometimes, because of the code, like your footnotes aren’t at the bottom of the page, they’re in the text. It’s confusing. And always compiling the PDF to view it is a pain.

What other programming languages have you used?

I extensively use SAS and Stata for my economics research. I learned Java of course, and dabbled a little in R. And I can fight my way through a C or C++ code if I have to.

[Playing on Authorea for a few minutes...]

JM: So this is sort of the blank canvas. Let’s type something up.
. . .
And you can preview it.

CL: Oh wow, that’s really cool. Takes the pain out of compiling.

JM: And for citations, you can put the DOI in, and it will just pull it up.

CL: That’s helpful.

JM: Or you can search...

CL: Wow, that’s a nifty tool.
And I can just copy-paste or import my LaTeX file directly into here?

JM: Exactly. And we have this comment feature here...

CL: That’s cool, but it would be cooler if you could reference to a specific spot in the text though.

JM: We do that.

CL: That makes it so much easier!

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