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MIT wins Putnam math competition

Seniors Qingchun Ren and Yufei Zhao finish in top five, helping MIT secure overall victory and end a four-year drought.

MIT has won the William Lowell Putnam Math Competition, ending a four-year drought in which the Institute had the best individual results but failed to claim overall victory in the prestigious intercollegiate mathematics contest.

Seniors Qingchun Ren and Yufei Zhao finished in the top five of the competition, which consists of a six-hour written exam. Senior Bohua Zhan, junior Jacob Steinhardt and freshman Sergei Bernstein placed in the top 15.

MIT’s performance in the 2009 exam, which was held Dec. 5, may be its best ever, said the team’s adviser, Professor Richard Stanley. Three additional students — freshman Whan Ghang and sophomores Panupong Pasupat and Colin Sandon — finished in the top 25, and MIT students took 20 of the 50 honorable mentions.

“Congratulations to our team and to all participants for achieving these extraordinary results,” said Michael Sipser, head of MIT’s Department of Mathematics.

The 12 questions on the Putnam exam require students to be creative in applying their knowledge of basic calculus and algebra. Before the exam, each participating school chooses three students to form a team whose combined scores determine the overall school winner; MIT’s official team was made up of Ren, Zhan and Zhao. Harvard’s team finished second, followed by Caltech, Stanford and Princeton.

MIT’s first-place finish earned $25,000 for the MIT math department, and each team member received $1,000. Ren and Zhao also earned the Putnam Fellow distinction, which carries a $2,500 prize, for finishing in the top five.

MIT has won the Putnam competition six times since its inception in 1938, with the most recent victories in 2003 and 2004. Since then, MIT’s team finished fourth once (2005) and third three times (2006-2008).

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