Mathletes take fifth at Putnam competition

Albert Gu (left), Michael Druggan (right), and Linus Hamilton (not pictured) recently represented Carnegie Mellon at the William Lowell Putnam Competition. (credit: Desiree Xu/Assistant Business Manager) Albert Gu (left), Michael Druggan (right), and Linus Hamilton (not pictured) recently represented Carnegie Mellon at the William Lowell Putnam Competition. (credit: Desiree Xu/Assistant Business Manager)

Though practicing math problems may sound dull and even repulsive to some, three students happily put their math skills to the test by representing Carnegie Mellon in the William Lowell Putnam Competition, one of the most prestigious math competitions in the country. They took fifth place in the competition.

Each participating school sends a representative three-person team to compete. The school’s ranking is essentially the sum of the team members’ individual places, with lower-sum teams ranking higher. The team members — sophomore mathematics majors Albert Gu and Michael Druggan, along with first-year Science and Humanities Scholar and mathematics major Linus Hamilton — regularly attend the weekly Putnam seminar, taught by assistant professor of mathematical sciences Po-Shen Loh. There, they prepare and practice math problems from topics covered by the undergraduate math curriculum including analysis, algebra group theory, combinatorics, and more.

The teammates also met for three hours every Sunday and occasionally did problems by themselves to prepare for the Putnam Competition.

This year, 4,277 American and Canadian undergraduates from 578 institutions participated in the competition, which was held in December. The students were given six hours to solve 12 complex mathematical problems using a combination of creative thinking and concepts taught in college mathematics courses. In total, 138 Carnegie Mellon students participated in this year’s competition, and 30 placed in the top 500. Hamilton placed in the top 10.

According to Gu, problems that appear in the competition act as brainteasers because “they have a different flavor from math” and they differ from problems that a mathematician typically encounters. The peculiarity of problems may be what inspired the three to compete in the first place. All three had been competing since high school.

Carnegie Mellon placed among the top five of the nation’s teams. It is possible the team members’ success came from constant practice and starting early.

“I feel that this year, there weren’t any problems that [were] especially out of the ordinary,” Gu said.

Druggan also felt confident going into the competition. “I was good at math, so competition was fun, even though I didn’t learn anything,” he said.

All members agreed that math contests like the Putnam Competition bring them satisfaction since they help strengthen their problem-solving skills.

Despite their bright attitude and seemingly impressive results, the team members met some obstacles during this year’s Putnam. Gu and Druggan agreed that they did not fair as well in the recent Putnam as they did in past competitions.

“Some problems were just hard; the solution came out of nowhere, and it [was] hard to come up with,” Gu said.

Druggan echoed Gu’s sentiments. “Unfortunately, everyone did poorly on this [year’s competition] because the hard problems were just too hard,” he said.

According to the team members, some of the problems they ran into included missing fine details that judges deemed important, and not being able to conjure up creative solutions quickly enough. However, the team remains undeterred in their future math competition pursuits. After all, competitions like the Putnam are meant to be activites that students like Gu and Druggan accomplish in addition to going to class and doing homework.

“Coming in fifth was a nice surprise, but we hope to do better next year,” Gu said.