Five MIT students named Putnam Fellows

MIT becomes first school to claim all five highest-ranking spots

At the most recent William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, which is generally considered one of the most prestigious math contests for undergraduate students, MIT made history by becoming the first school to claim all five of the highest-ranking spots.

Ashwin Sah ’20, Kevin Sun ’20, Yuan Yao ’21, Shengtong Zhang ’22, and Daniel Zhu ’23 were named Putnam Fellows. Among them, an unnamed student became the fifth perfect scorer in Putnam’s history, according to MIT News.

Of the next 11 highest scorers, nine are from MIT; of the next 12, eight are from MIT. 

The Mathematical Association of America administered the Putnam Dec. 7. The exam consisted of 12 questions, each worth 10 points, split across two 3-hour sessions. The median score was two.  

“I regard it as a remarkable achievement I would put on my resume,” Zhang wrote in an email to The Tech. However, he does not consider performing well on the Putnam to necessarily be an indicator of mathematical talent, since the competition “resembles very little of actual mathematics being done today.”

Qi Qi ’20 was awarded the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize, given to top-scoring women contestants. 

“It honestly doesn’t mean much, except that people are congratulating me this year,” Qi wrote in an email to The Tech. “I actually performed better on the Putnam in both of the previous two years than I did this year in terms of both score and ranking, but it so happened that I was lucky enough to receive the prize this year.”

Sah, Zhang, and Zhu were all participants in 18.A34 (Mathematical Problem Solving), a Putnam seminar for first year, run by Yufei Zhao ’10, professor of mathematics and a former Putnam participant. Zhao wrote in an email to The Tech that the goals of the seminar are to prepare students for the competition, “to improve their communication skills through in-class presentations and critical feedback,” and “to encourage students to use their existing skills as a springboard onto higher mathematics.”

Zhao has worked with Sah, as well as Mehtaab Sawhney ’20, an honorable mention, and David Stoner, a former twice-Fellow who attended Harvard, to solve “a number of fundamental open problems in extremal graph theory.” They have written four papers together, one of which was accepted at Inventiones Mathematicae.

Additionally, Zhao, Yao, and Zhang “solved a longstanding open problem in discrete geometry and discovered a surprising and fundamental result in spectral graph theory.”

“The Institute, at all levels, has been very supportive of our efforts and cares deeply about the academic excellence of our students,” Zhao wrote. “I find it incredibly meaningful and enjoyable to work with the next generation of mathematicians and provide them with encouragement and guidance to succeed.”

Zhang and Qi listed a wide range of classes that have inspired and influenced them academically, covering topics including combinatorics, number theory, and theoretical computer science. 

“Math classes at MIT were very difficult for me and some fields of mathematics are too abstract,” Sun wrote in an email to The Tech

Zhang, Qi, and Sun all said they did not prepare for the Putnam this year.

The other Putnam Fellows did not respond to The Tech’s request for comment.

Kerri Lu contributed reporting.