WPI Student Places High in Prestigious Putnam Math Competition

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) sophomore Zehao Li received one of the second highest awards in the 71st annual William Lowell Putnam Competition, a mathematics competition for undergraduate college students in the United States and Canada.

The Putnam Competition, administered by the Mathematical Association of America, falls on the first Saturday in December and is supervised by faculty members at participating schools. The 2010 competition attracted 4,296 participants from 546 colleges, including 10 students from WPI, as well as teams from 442 institutions. Competitors solve 12 math problems over two tests, using basic knowledge of college math but advanced levels of creative thinking. Each problem is graded on a basis of zero to 10 points. The grades were announced in April.

"The Putnam Competition is one of the most challenging math competitions in the world; the median score (out of 120) is zero," said WPI President Dennis Berkey. "Out of nearly 5,000 contestants, only the five who tied for first place achieved a higher score than Zehao, who scored in the 90s.  It’s truly a remarkable accomplishment, and we are extremely proud of this exceptional student."

Other WPI participants in the 2010 Putnam Competition were Mihnea Andrei, Zhen He,Tuan Le, Likai Lin, Quanquan Ma, Xiao Shen, Xiaojing Wang, Chuqiao Yang, and Meng Zhu. Professor Darko Volkov organized the competition at WPI. 

Li, 21, is from China and has a love for mathematics and physics. He plans to graduate in 2013 with a physics and math double major and a BS/MS in physics. Li then aims to go on to graduate study in physics. For his efforts in the Putnam Competition, Li won a $1,000 scholarship.

Professor L. Ramdas Ram-Mohan of the WPI Physics and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments worked with Li on his Major Qualifying Project as well as on other projects. "I kept pushing limits with him to look at complex issues, to see if he could distinguish between book knowledge and intrinsic knowledge," Ram-Mohan said. "Every time, he came through. He is a very mature, cheerful, well-balanced individual."

Ram-Mohan adds that Li's performance in the Putnam Competition shows he is applying the knowledge gained from the graduate-level math and physics courses he has been taking. "He has consolidated the math and integrated it into his thinking," he says.