On Dec. 4, 11 Haverford students gathered in Hilles 108 to challenge themselves by competing in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, a prestigious competition for undergraduates from the United States and Canada. Participating students engage in two three-hour sessions, during each of which they have to answer six problems. Students work individually on problems, though there are teams of three, whose scores are totaled for a team score. The competition is open to any undergraduate institution who would like to participate.
Haverford’s diligent preparation and teamwork were well met. The team received the highest placement in recent memory in the Putnam, ranking 17th out of the 427 participating colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada.
“It’s our best performance since I joined Haverford’s faculty in 1991,” said Lynne Butler, professor of mathematics and statistics, and supervisor for the students who participated in the Putnam. She, along with Mathematics Department Chair Rob Manning, have served as advisors to the Problem Solving Group (PSG), revived this year, for mathematicians who enjoy challenging themselves with difficult math problems, such as those found on the Putnam. PSG was initially founded in 2006 by William Huber ‘78, and lasted for approximately 10 years before being “re-founded” in fall 2021.
“The goal of PSG is to have fun with math, and not to specialize in Putnam or whatever math competition, but I am certain that it has helped to prepare for Putnam,” said Guilherme Zeus Dantas e Moura ‘24, math major and a co-head of PSG. Dantas e Moura ranked 106th out of all 2975 participants in the Putnam. He, along with Lucas Nelson ‘23, were Haverford’s highest ranking participants in the competitive field. They were followed closely by João Pedro Mello de Carvalho ‘22 and Logan Post ’23.
The Putnam is the only mathematics competition in which Haverford participates regularly, but the opportunity is open to anyone in the student body, not just members of the PSG.
“An announcement was emailed early Fall 2021 to Haverford students taking Math 121, Math 146, Math 203, Math 204, Math 215, Math 218, Math 286, Math 317, Math 333, Math 335 or Math 340, as well as all math minors and majors,” Butler said. “The opportunity was specifically extended to them, though it is open to anyone who would like to join us.”
Dantas e Moura credits his success in the competition to his math coursework, as well as regular practice with PSG.
“In general, proof-based math courses, such as Math 333, 334, 317, helped me to sharpen my skill of writing formal math arguments, and Professors Lynne Butler and Rob Manning helped us to revive PSG, and supervised the competition,” he said. “Also, alumni William Huber ‘78 regularly participates and contributes to our PSG meetings, so I’m thankful to him too.”
Dantas e Moura also participated in the International Mathematical Olympiad in high school, twice at the International Mathematics Competition for University Students, and the 2020 Putnam, though the latter was unofficial due to the pandemic. Each of these has helped him to prepare for this year’s Putnam, where he excelled.
While the Putnam Competition awards prizes to only the top 27 students and top 5 schools, Haverford’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics awards a prize to the first-year student who ranks highest on the exam. The winner of that award this year is Rowan Shigeno ‘25.
“Going into the Putnam, I knew it would be pretty hard, but I wasn’t sure what kind of score to expect,” said Shigeno. “I was admittedly pretty surprised to learn that I was the highest-scoring first-year. I am, however, very grateful to be receiving this award–it means a lot to me as someone who had always loved math.”
Shigeno also expressed gratitude towards the Haverford math department for being so welcoming to him, and that getting to know the community through PSG has cemented his plans to major in mathematics here.
“Receiving this award definitely gives me a huge boost of confidence, inspiring me to continue pursuing math academically, and in the long term to hopefully make a career out of the subject I love most,” he said.
“The problems do not require much more than possibly linear algebra, but are designed to reward cleverness and ingenuity,” Butler said about the Putnam Competition. “They are difficult–no doubt about that. Spending six hours on a Saturday struggling with them is not most people’s idea of ‘fun.’ But if you’re looking for a challenge and a bonding experience with your fellow test-takers, including some professors, this is the event for you.”
Full information about the top ranking Haverford students can be found in the Putnam Competition’s official announcement. Students interested in joining the Problem Solving Group can visit their page on Engage or attend their meetings in KINSC L205 on Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.