Opinion

# UCLA's student math team defeats 448 others, but who's counting?

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As a high school student in Romania - when he won three gold medals with perfect scores in international math competitions - Ciprian Manolescu already knew about the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition for university undergraduates.

"I found old problems from the Putnam competition in a University of Bucharest library, and I used them to prepare for the high school Olympiad," recalled Manolescu, who is now the coach of UCLA's Putnam competition team.   The preparation certainly paid off: As a Harvard undergraduate, he finished in the top five for each of three years, competing against thousands of undergraduates who took the Putnam exam. (Putnam does not reveal the order of the top five finishers, so Manolescu still doesn't know what his scores were or where in the top five he placed.)

Established in 1938, the annual Putnam exam consists of 12 mathematical problems to be completed in six hours, with a break midway between two sessions. If that sounds like a long time for a math test, in truth it's not nearly long enough.   The test is fiendishly difficult, and the grading is strict. Students can receive up to 10 points for each problem, but if they make even a small mistake, they get almost no points.

"It's important to solve the problem completely," said Manolescu, who is currently an associate professor of mathematics but has been promoted to full professor, effective July 1, 2012.   In the most recent Putnam competition, held last December, the median individual score - out of a possible 120 points - was 1. Many areas of mathematics are covered, including advanced calculus, differential equations, number theory and probability. One problem in number theory was solved by none of the students; everyone received a score of 0.

You don't have to be Terence Tao to figure out that with Manolescu as coach, UCLA's three-student Putnam team is likely to be very successful. Still, UCLA's mathematics department had fairly modest expectations for the team. For while UCLA's mathematics faculty is world-class and its graduate program is ranked nationally in the top 10, the undergraduate program has lagged behind.

"We were trying to get in the top 25 teams in the Putnam competition for now," said Sorin Popa, chair of UCLA's mathematics department and a math professor.   "Ciprian [Manolescu] is brilliant, extremely talented," Popa added. "We are very fortunate to have such an outstanding coach for our undergraduate students."

When the results of December's competition were announced recently, the UCLA team's performance likely raised some eyebrows. Of the 460 university teams from the U.S. and Canada that competed, UCLA finished 12th - the university's best result since 1970, nearly a decade before the 33-year-old Manolescu was born.

"The Putnam result is much more than we expected," Popa said.   The UCLA team consists of freshman Tudor Padurariu, sophomore Francisc Bozgan and junior Cheng Mao.   Manolescu and his students seemed pleased, but not thrilled.   "It's a very good result for the department, but we hope we can do better," Manolescu said. "It would be nice to be in the top 10. I think it can be done."   "I'm glad for the result, but I hope we can do better next year," said Padurariu, who is from Romania, as is Bozgan.

One reason UCLA is doing better, Manolescu said, is that Popa started an initiative in 2010 called the UCLA Math Undergraduate Merit Scholarships to attract outstanding high school students and raise the caliber of UCLA's undergraduate mathematics program; Padurariu and Bozgan both came to UCLA on this merit scholarship.

"The scholarship provides a great opportunity to come to UCLA and be taught by the best mathematicians in the world," Bozgan said.

"Like in sports, you can have the best coach, but you cannot succeed without superbly gifted students," Popa said. "Talent in mathematics is easily detectable. At UCLA, the talent is increasing at every level, including among our undergraduates. We hope to attract a donor to endow the UCLA Math Undergraduate Merit Scholarships so that we will elevate our undergraduate program to national prominence. We have already achieved that level with our graduate program."

Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton offer many undergraduate scholarships, he noted.   Manolescu gives the credit for the team's success to the students.   "Tudor [Padurariu], Francisc [Bozgan] and [Cheng] Mao are outstanding young mathematicians, and they have worked very hard," he said. "They have devoted much more work in preparing for the exam than I did in coaching them, and they deserve to be proud of their hard-earned success."

Source: UC--Los Angeles