First try equals success in international math contest

“It was such a strange feeling when we found out we won an award typically won by Ivy Leagues” - A&S Graduating Senior Jimmy Jones

Seventy-two hours of intense calculations on 20-plus computers and a lot of Mountain Dew-fueled mathematics prowess led a three-student UofL team to sixth place in its first try at problem-solving in an international contest.

Sophomore Suraj Kannan and graduating seniors Jimmy Jones and Joshua Mitchell, all members of UofL’s GEMS (Guaranteed Entrance to Medical School) program, decided to take a shot at the mathematical contest in modeling offered by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications. 

More than 3,600 teams from 17 countries competed in the online problem-solving. The UofL team spent three days and nights coming up with the mathematical model, programming it, testing it and writing a paper about their solution. Their solution earned them a designation as “outstanding winner” plus the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ award for their paper. 

The three men will go to Minneapolis in July to present their paper, which also will be published in an undergraduate mathematics journal.  The problem required contestants to analyze boating and camping trips along a fictitious river to optimize the wilderness tourism experience.

“It’s a very applied problem” and indicative of a practical way that math modeling is used, said Thomas Riedel, chairman of the UofL mathematics department that sponsored the team. “It’s not just theoretical stuff.”

“Ours did amazingly well,” Riedel said.

The three are interested in careers in bio-informatics, according to Kannan, now a Louisville junior majoring in mathematics and biochemistry. Jones majored in biology and Mitchell in biochemistry.

“Mathematics and mathematical modeling are becoming big in all areas of research. These kinds of skills really come in handy,” Kannan said. “It was a really great experience to see how crucial these skills are to real-life experience.” 

How the contest worked

On a specific Thursday night, the problems came up online and teams chose the problem they wanted to tackle. The team had 72 hours to come up with a model, program it, test it and write a paper. They could use computers, Internet resources, libraries and literature but no other people, not even math faculty sponsor Changbing Hu. 

The three set up shop in a chemistry lab where they used at least 20 computers and laptops , at one point running thousands of calculations per second, according to Kannan. “We finished everything with three minutes to go.” 

“The tension in the room was incredible. It was a dramatic moment for us,” he said. “At the end of it there were Mountain Dew cans everywhere.”

Kannan said he hoped that UofL will have two or three teams in next spring’s competition especially after this year’s placement.

“We were rather shocked,” Kannan said. “We just wanted to have some fun and give4 it a shot and learn a little bit.”

“It was such a strange feeling when we found out we won an award typically won by Ivy Leagues,” said Jones, who’ll start UofL medical school with Mitchell this year. 

Ten schools internationally were designated as outstanding winners for problems offered this year in the Mathematical Contest in Modeling. The other schools designated as outstanding winners were from universities in the United States, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. For the problem that UofL solved, the other winning teams were from Peking University, University of Colorado (two teams), Western Washington University and Bethel University.