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USC Team Excels at Math Competition

A group of undergraduate students from USC College and Viterbi placed in the top 150 teams at the 2009 Putnam Mathematical Competition.

Professor of Mathematics Sergey Lototsky (right) was a coach of the 2009 USC Putnam team, which placed 84th out of 546 teams at the December mathematics competition. Sophomore Junda Chen (left) was the highest placing member of the team, ranking 311th out of 4,036 contestants. Photo credit Laurie Moore.
Professor of Mathematics Sergey Lototsky (right) was a coach of the 2009 USC Putnam team, which placed 84th out of 546 teams at the December mathematics competition. Sophomore Junda Chen (left) was the highest placing member of the team, ranking 311th out of 4,036 contestants. Photo credit Laurie Moore.

A team comprised of seven undergraduate students from USC College and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering placed 84th out of 546 teams in the 2009 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. Sophomore Junda Chen placed 311th out of 4,036 contestants, the highest individual rank for a USC team member this year.

The group was notified of their ranking, USC’s best in the last decade, in late March. The rank is based on the scores of three competitors: seniors Phillip Adkins and Dayton Thorpe, and sophomore Junda Chen. Other members of the team were seniors Zhe Meng and Henry Yuen, and sophomores Kevin Kuwahara and Tanay Mehta.

The Putnam competition, founded in 1938 and administered by the Mathematical Association of America, is the main math competition for undergraduate students in the United States and Canada. The competition takes place annually on the first Saturday in December at each participating school. Each member of the team is given 12 problems to solve in six hours: three hours to finish the first set of six problems, and another three hours to finish the second set.

Scholarships and cash prizes are awarded to the top students and schools, but according to Sergey Lototsky, professor of mathematics, it’s the process that makes this competition worth entering. “In the end, you get personal satisfaction for challenging yourself, for doing something that most people would never do,” Lototsky said. “If you don’t challenge yourself, eventually everything becomes boring.”

Lototsky and Richard Arratia, professor of mathematics, have coached USC’s Putnam team together for the past 10 years. The two professors hold weekly meetings during the Fall and Spring semesters to train students for the competition. The group discusses and works on various problems that the students may encounter.

Although Lototsky says that in principle, no special knowledge is required to take the test, aside from high school math skills, he believes that practicing problem solving under time limitations is essential.

Chen, a dual major in mathematics in the College and computer engineering and computer science in Viterbi, agrees that practicing is vital. “Although it’s just math, it seems very different from the kind of math that people teach in the classroom. It takes a different skill to do competition math.”

The next Putnam competition will be held on Saturday, December 4, 2010, and Putnam meetings at USC will resume in Fall 2010.

For more information and to sign up for the competition, contact Sergey Lototsky at lototsky@usc.edu.