To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Brandeis participates in Putnam Mathematics Competition

Professor of Mathematics Olivier Bernardi announced Brandeis’ performance at the 83rd annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition based on recently released results. The competition took place on Dec. 3, 2022. The Brandeis team ranked 39th out of the 456 institutions that participated in the competition. 

The Putnam Competition is known as the preeminent mathematics competition for undergraduate students in the U.S. and Canada. Each problem is an intricate math puzzle that utilizes topics in mathematics that are covered at the undergraduate level, including linear algebra, analysis, modern algebra and number theory. Some well known figures who have participated in the Putnam include physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynmann and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

The competition involves two three-hour sessions of problem solving, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. At each period, students work on solving six challenging problems independently. While students work independently, the representatives of each school act as a team since the sum of each institution’s participant’s scores may allow the school to qualify for prizes. 

There were eight Brandeis students who competed in total, and three students represented the Brandeis team: Ben Kamen ’24, Phuong Pham ’25 and Isaac Berger ’25. Kamen received an honorable mention of ranking 58 out of 3415 participants. The students were coached by Professor of Mathematics Kiyoshi Igusa and 2nd year PhD candidate Tudor Popescu, who held biweekly meetings, where one practice session was run by Igusa and the other was run by Popescu. Instructor in Mathematics Tariq Osman was another member of the coaching team. 

In an interview with The Hoot, Popescu described how he approached each training session, saying that there was a combination of examining strategies to solve previous Putnam problems and lecturing on specific theorems and topics. “The most important resource was probably the pizza, so I’d like to thank the Math Department for providing that!” he joked. 

Kamen provided further insight into the nature of the Putnam Competition problems in an interview with The Hoot, describing how while the scope of mathematics is constrained to a typical undergraduate curriculum, the difficulty arises in understanding what tools to use to solve a problem and how to prove the logic implemented. 

Each of the members of the Brandeis team shared their thoughts on the experience of the competition with The Hoot as well. Pham shared that she had fun attending the meetings and being a part of the community. “I do plan to take part in the competition next year. I hope I will do better, but I am not putting too much pressure on myself since it is really challenging,” she added.

Berger explained how he was motivated to participate in math competitions in college in order to challenge himself since we did not have that experience in high school. Having participated in the Putnam Competition twice now, Berger reflected that the competition truly requires dedicated practice time. “I highly recommend that any math enjoyers at least try out some of the practice sessions. They’re very casual and are a great way to challenge yourself with difficult problems and broaden your horizons!” Berger concluded. 

Kamen shared his key takeaways, saying, “My key takeaway is that things that look very difficult are always possible to prepare for…Once one has that sufficient knowledge and experience base, once impossible tasks usually look quite approachable. In addition, it shows that it is important not just to have a knowledge base, but to also know how and where to apply it.”

Moving forward, Popescu shared his enthusiasm for continuing to coach students. Having performed well in the Putnam Competition while he was studying at Carnegie Mellon University, Popescu wanted to share his experiences with Brandeis students and help them score well, so he joined Igusa in coaching the team in the fall 2021 semester.

Popescu encourages any math lovers to attend the Putnam sessions. “Brandeis students have amazing potential! Putnam is a bit weird in the sense that the problems are different than typical math homework problems, but with a bit of practice, any Brandeis student can score well!”

Get Our Stories Sent To Your Inbox

Skip to content