Carnegie Mellon math team wins first place at Putnam

Apr 10, 2017

In the 77th William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition (known as “Putnam”), the Carnegie Mellon team, led by Professor Po-Shen Loh, won the first place for the first time in history, beating top schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University, and Harvard University. This is the sixth consecutive year that Carnegie Mellon ranked top five in the competition, with second most number of undergraduate student in the top 500 competitors.

More than 150 Carnegie Mellon students participated in the competition December 3, 2016. 4164 competitors from 568 institutes in North America participated in the contest. Putnam is widely recognized as the most prestigious undergraduate competition in the world, with the median score of 0 or 1 out of 120. Students are asked to solve 12 complex math problem by using knowledge taught in undergraduate math courses. To place in the top five and become a Putnam Fellow often requires a score of over 100, and to be in the top 500 requires a score of 28 this year.

The competition results released last week showed that Carnegie Mellon students claimed 44 out of the top 517 spots. The Carnegie Mellon winning team includes junior mathematical science major Joshua Brakensiek, who placed first in the competition, and senior mathematical science major Thomas Swayze, and senior mathematical science major Samuel Zbarsky. Carnegie Mellon also claimed three out of the top five competitors. The last time any team had all three competitors in the top five was in 1990 at Harvard University.

Po-Shen Loh, who led the CMU team and taught Putnam Seminar in the fall, began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in 2010 after graduating from Princeton University. In addition to being an associate professor in mathematical sciences, Loh is also the national lead coach of USA Math International Olympiad Team since 2013, and was an instructor and leader at the USA Math Olympiad Summer Program. An excellent mathematician and enthusiastic teacher, Loh has transformed the landscape of the mathematical sciences department of Carnegie Mellon. He not only recruited “mathletes” through the Knaster-McWilliams Scholars program, but also heightened the interest in mathematics within Carnegie Mellon.

Before 2011, Carnegie Mellon had not been ranked top five in Putnam since 1987. “When I came here seven years ago, I thought [Carnegie Mellon] should be one of those five teams,” said Loh. In 2011, 2013 and 2015, Carnegie Mellon team placed second in the competition, and place fifth in 2012 and 2014. This year’s result signified the fruition of Loh’s and the participants’ hard work.

In his post at Overheard at Carnegie Mellon, Loh thanked everyone at Carnegie Mellon. “Thank you for being awesome,” Loh wrote, “even people who didn’t take the Putnam. You all contribute to the creative atmosphere that support us all.”