Carnegie Mellon University
April 10, 2017

CMU Takes First Place in 2016 Putnam Mathematics Competition

Carnegie Mellon extends its top-five streak in North America’s premier mathematics competition for undergraduates for the sixth year

By Jocelyn Duffy

Thomas Swayze, Samuel Zbarsky and Joshua BrakensiekThomas Swayze, Samuel Zbarsky and Joshua Brakensiek

Carnegie Mellon University placed first in the Mathematical Association of America’s 77th William Lowell Putnam Competition, the premier mathematics competition for undergraduate students in North America. 

Three Mellon College of Science students majoring in mathematical sciences, junior Joshua Brakensiek and seniors Thomas Swayze and Samuel Zbarsky, scored among the top five of all students, earning them the distinction of being named Putnam Fellows. Forty-four Carnegie Mellon students placed in the top 517, the second most of any university.

This is the sixth consecutive year that Carnegie Mellon’s team has placed in the top five of the competition and the first time they have placed first. Prior to the current streak, the university had placed in the top five three other times – in 1946, 1949 and 1987. It’s also the first time since 1990 that all three members of any university’s Putnam team have been named Putnam Fellows.

“The meteoric rise of the Carnegie Mellon Putnam team reflects a culture of bold innovation at the university. Here we encourage fresh ideas that challenge paradigms and turn the impossible into the possible,” said Po-Shen Loh, associate professor of mathematical sciences and the team’s coach. Loh is also the lead coach of the U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad team, a national program organized by the Mathematical Association of America, with training hosted at Carnegie Mellon. The team has ranked first in the world for the past two years.

The university’s current success is the result of a great deal of hard work by the students who took the six-hour exam and a concerted effort by the university to create an environment where students can enthusiastically engage in math and problem solving, take classes in top-ranked programs including math, finance, computer science and statistics, and receive support and mentorship from the research university’s award-winning faculty. 

The Department of Mathematical Sciences in the Mellon College of Science also offers a number of programs, including the Knaster Scholars Program and mathematical science honors program, that provide opportunities for advanced study, increased mentorship and research. 

“Faculty mentor our students with a broad-minded view of careers and emphasize impact, excellence, innovation and entrepreneurship. We take a very comprehensive view of the undergraduate student experience, helping students to define their identities at the highest levels,” said John Mackey, teaching professor of mathematical sciences and computer science.

There also are informal opportunities for students of any major to gather to engage in math. Loh brings students from across the university’s schools and colleges who plan to take the Putnam exam together each week for relaxed meetings where they work together to solve problems and socialize. Loh said this extended Putnam team contains some of the most creative analytical thinkers on campus, and he believes this collaboration between students from different disciplines makes all of the students who take the exam stronger and better prepared.

This is the fifth year in a row that Carnegie Mellon has had the second highest number of students in the approximate top 500 of any university, demonstrating the excellence in mathematics among Carnegie Mellon undergraduates across the university’s colleges and schools. The 175 Carnegie Mellon students who took the exam had diverse majors, including mathematical sciences, computer science, statistics, engineering, business, psychology and music.

Among the 44 students who placed in the top 517 were sophomore mathematical sciences major David Altizio, senior mathematical sciences major William Christerson, junior computer science major Jacob Imola, senior mathematical sciences major Ray Li and sophomore mathematical sciences and computer science major Victor Xu, who placed in the top 93, earning them honorable mentions. A full list of Carnegie Mellon students placing in the top 517 can be found here:

The Department of Mathematical Sciences in the Mellon College of Science will receive $25,000 for the first place finish, and each team member will receive $1,000 for the first-place finish and $2,500 for being Putnam Fellows.

Brakensiek, Swayze and Zbarsky are part of the Knaster-McWilliams Scholars Program. Funded by two Carnegie Mellon alumni, the program is one of only a few scholarship-supported programs in the country that is paired with an honors program and offers increased access to faculty and research opportunities.