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|Putnam Fellow William Johnson. Photo by Mary Levin.|
"Just as Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky always seem to dominate in basketball, the Putnam Fellowships have been 'owned' by Harvard, MIT and Cal Tech. It's great to have a Husky join them," comments President Mark Emmert. "Our math department is truly remarkable in working with our students, and a real point of pride for us."
The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition is held each December by the Mathematical Association of America. The competition began in 1938, and is open to undergraduate students in the United States and Canada. This is the first time a UW student has been named a Putnam Fellow.
Johnson grew up in the Seattle area and attended Kenmore's Inglemoor High School. Last year he placed sixth overall in the Putnam, just two points away from being among the winners. This year he wins $2,500 and the honor of being named a Fellow, a distinction that will follow him through his career.
"This is huge," said Selim Tuncel, chair of the mathematics department, noting that the list of previous winners includes many of the top names in the field. "Will's achievement is a combination of amazing talent and excellent mentoring on the part of my colleagues."
The UW team has been coached for the past two years by Ioana Dumitriu, a UW assistant professor of mathematics who in 1996 was the first woman to be named a Putnam Fellow, and Julia Pevtsova, also a UW assistant professor of mathematics, who was a silver medalist in the International Mathematical Olympiad.
"I am very, very proud of Will," Dumitriu said. "For me, it's a matter of huge pride to have a Putnam Fellow that I helped train."
The coaches emphasize that they cannot take credit for Johnson's performance.
"No amount of coaching could get him there unless he was willing to put in the work and unless he had this special talent to begin with," Dumitriu said. "It's kind of like athletes. There's a tremendous amount of work that has to be put in, on top of a very good natural ability."
And, like athletes, a winning score requires focus and stamina on game day. The Putnam is a six-hour contest. Competitors are given one set of problems in the morning and another in the afternoon. They must submit fully written-out proofs to get full credit. Of a possible 120 points, the average competitor scores 1 or 2. (Johnson scored around 100.)
This year 19 UW students wrote the Putnam. Four others placed in the top 500: Yisong Song, a freshman in pre-sciences, Steven Rutherford, a freshman in computer engineering and Keyun Tong, a senior in computer science and Nate Bottman, a senior in Russian and mathematics, who both placed in the top 500 last year.
In addition to the coaching, Johnson credits his success to his religious beliefs, parents who encouraged an interest in mathematics from an early age, good math teachers, and two years of participation in the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program in Nebraska.
The other four Putnam Fellows this year hailed from Harvard, Yale and MIT. Though Johnson probably could have had his pick of these, he chose to attend the UW.
"I liked the campus, and I like the state of Washington, where I grew up," said Johnson, whose tuition was paid through the Washington Scholars program.
Johnson has at least one more year of study at the UW. After graduating he is considering working in computer programming or pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics.