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MIT students dominate Putnam Mathematical Competition, winning team event

Four of five top individual finishers, known as “Putnam Fellows,” also hail from MIT.
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The recently announced results of the annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, the prestigious undergraduate mathematics contest that this year included more than 4,100 students from 557 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, represented a sweeping victory for MIT.

The Institute not only won the team competition — placing ahead of runners-up Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University — but also placed four students in the top five individual spots, an achievement that earns those contestants designation as “Putnam Fellows”: sophomore Mitchell Lee, junior Zipei Nie, freshman Bobby Shen, and freshman David Yang.

A large number of other MIT students also delivered strong performances on the famously challenging six-hour, 12-question exam.

“The Putnam exam is brutally graded,” explains Henry Cohn, an adjunct professor of applied mathematics who helped students prepare for the Putnam by teaching — along with Abhinav Kumar, an associate professor of applied mathematics — 18.A34 (Problem Solving Seminar). “There’s almost no partial credit given, so, for example, on question B6 this year, exactly zero students received full credit. This year’s median score was around one point out of 120 points available, so even students who scored zero were in good company.”

“There were 87 MIT students in the top 442 this year, which is amazing,” Cohn adds. “No other school had even half that many.”

Cohn and members of MIT’s team first learned of the Putnam triumph via Wikipedia.

“We noticed a day or two before we received the ‘official’ results in the mail that somebody had altered the Wikipedia entry for the Putnam Competition to reflect that MIT had won, but we didn’t know if it was a prank,” he says. “When the ‘official’ results finally came, I was thrilled.”

Winning MIT team of Lee, Nie, and Gunby

The three members of MIT’s winning team — Lee, Nie, and junior Benjamin Gunby, also a mathematics major — competed in Putnam for a variety of reasons.

“I find the Putnam Competition to be a fun experience,” explains Lee, a mathematics major and two-time Putnam Fellow. “Besides that, I hope that my performance will help me if I apply for graduate school. I also appreciate the prize money.” (Lee won $3,500 for his efforts.)

Lee also enjoys the team camaraderie. He attributes MIT’s performance this year to “the overall strength of the math community here at MIT.”

“We enjoy talking about math,” he says. “We all support each other and congratulate each other. The things I have learned from other competitors undoubtedly played a role in my own performance.”

Nie, also a mathematics major and two-time Putnam Fellow, says that math contests provide a sense of belonging. As a high school student in China, Nie says, he felt “pessimistic day after day, so I decided to let math be the meaning of my life. Math and the support of my high school teachers cured me. Math Olympiad training became my main work during those years. Fortunately, I made great progress.”

Gunby, a Putnam Fellow last year and a member of the winning MIT trio this year, says math contests represent an intellectual challenge. “Math competitions have played a big part of my life,” he says, “especially during high school. Before college, math classes didn’t do much to improve my problem-solving skills. But everyone in college can find a math class that’s interesting and challenging.”

Michael Sipser, the Barton L. Weller Professor of Mathematics, head of the Department of Mathematics, and interim dean of the School of Science, says: “I’m proud that our department has attracted such a high caliber of student. We had an extraordinary number of top performers on the Putnam: 80 percent of the top five and 60 percent of the top 25.”

“Word has gotten out that MIT is the place to be for competitive math,” Sipser says, “and success breeds even more success. Winning helps us attract even more strong students, and not just math competitors, but smart kids in general.”

Sipser hopes that attention on events like the Putnam Competition can trigger larger public conversations about math. “It helps us celebrate math in a playful way,” he says.

Contest math vs. research math

How well does success at “contest math,” like the Putnam Competition, correlate with later achievement in math? As Sipser puts it, comparing time-limited contest math to research math “is like comparing regular chess to blitz chess.”

Bjorn Poonen, the Claude E. Shannon Professor of Mathematics and one of just eight students ever to be a four-time Putnam Fellow (as an undergraduate at Harvard University), agrees: “The Putnam differs from math research in that it rewards speed more than the ability to develop deep insights over time. There is some overlap in the skills, but there are many excellent mathematicians who didn’t do well on the Putnam. Also, as far as content goes, math majors at MIT learn much more than what is covered on the Putnam.”

Cohn, who received his SB in mathematics from MIT in 1995 and who participated in the Putnam Competition as an undergraduate, says: “While we rightfully celebrate these clever and quick problem-solvers who did so well on the Putnam, there are amazing MIT students who don’t even take the exam, as well as wonderful students who are going to accomplish fantastic things in mathematics even though they scored one point on the Putnam. The mathematics department doesn’t value students who win contests any more than we value the rest of our great students.”

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