The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 12, 1999
Apr. 5, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 30


Math Team Scores in Top 10 in Putnam

By Gary Dorsey
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Three undergraduates have placed Johns Hopkins among the top mathematical teams in the United States and Canada by their performance in the prestigious William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

Although Hopkins is one of the original homes for mathematical research in the United States, this is the first time Hopkins students have appeared among the top 10 finalists. In the 49 years since the competition began, the best teams regularly have included traditional mathematical powerhouses such as MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Duke and California Institute of Technology. Harvard took this year's top spot.

"Many of these schools have been competing for 40 years," said Joel Spruck, chairman of the Department of Mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences. "They make their top students compete, they are well funded, and they have a tradition. We've been doing it at Hopkins only on an ad hoc basis for about four years. So it's a tough contest for us, which makes this an impressive achievement for our undergraduates."

In the history of the Putnam contest, a number of winners have become Nobel laureates and acclaimed mathematicians. Among their ranks are the influential MIT physicist Richard Feynman and famed numbers theorist Donald Newman.

Added to the list of winners now are Hopkins students Alexander J. Diesl, a junior from Acton, Mass.; Rakesh M. Lal, a sophomore from Trinidad; and Nehal S. Munshi, a senior from New Orleans. Making their accomplishment all the more remarkable, Spruck observed, is the fact that of these three only one--Diesl--is a math major. The other two major in biomedical engineering.

The Putnam competition is held annually at more than 400 campuses in the United States and Canada. Contestants are given 12 math problems and asked to demonstrate complete solutions over a six-hour period. Because the test is so challenging and the judges grade strictly, of the potential score--from 0 to 120--the most common score is 0.

For example, this year's competition, which was held in December, included 2,581 students and teams from 319 colleges and universities. Of these, 800 scored 0.

"It has not always been very easy to field a team here because students come to Hopkins for biophysics or computer science or biomedical engineering--subjects that require mathematical know-how but don't require one to major in math," Spruck said. "Because there's such a shortage of math students in the United States, the best tend to go to Harvard or Princeton or other top-ranked schools that can offer the best scholarships."

What helped Johns Hopkins this year, he said, is the reformation of a mathematics club on the Homewood campus and the help of a graduate student in mathematics, Ramin Takloo-Bighash, whose own experience during the International Mathematics Olympiad in Iran gave him insight into the kind of training needed for such a high-level competition.

"Having a coach helped give them confidence," said Takloo-Bighash, who trained exclusively for the IMO for a full year when he was a high school student in Iran. "We worked on problem sets together every week, so it was a matter of teaching each other and encouraging each other and creating an atmosphere that combined their talents. So it was not an individual accomplishment at all.

Rakesh Lal, coach Ramin Takloo-Bighash and Alex Diesl. Missing is Nehal Munshi.

"It was interesting that when I looked at their scores, none of them were incredibly stunning. They were very good, but none were among the top 10 individual scores. But overall, their performance was great. That's exactly what makes me feel so proud of them. It's not like we had a genius to pump up the overall scores. These people worked for it. They made a good team, which is much more important than having one genius who produces perfect solutions."

More on the competition can be found at