| by Laura Meader

Qidong “Schu” He ’21 has proven himself a math prodigy. Literally.

He’s ability to solve mathematical proofs quickly and reliably earned him a ranking in the top 10 percent in the 2019 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, the foremost undergraduate mathematics competition in the United States and Canada.

Colby’s math whiz is in good company. His high-ranking peers hail from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, as well as other mostly large research institutions. In fact, He is one of just 19 students from liberal arts colleges to score at this level. 

Qidong “Schu” He ’21 (Photo by Gabe Souza)

In the 25 years that Colby has participated in this competition, He is among a small group to achieve such a high rank. How’d he do it? His strategy involved solving the relatively easy problems first then moving on. He also followed advice offered by Professor of Mathematics Leo Livshits to solve as many problems as he can completely. “A few complete solutions,” He said, “are better than a lot of incomplete solutions.”

The solutions don’t have direct applications beyond mathematics. Rather they offer what He calls “smart insights” that can be applied to problem-solving more broadly. “When you’re presented with a very complicated task, you break it into smaller tasks you can handle well,” he said. “Eventually you put together your methods, your results, and you get something.

“When I find a solution, it’s like a release of endorphins,” He said. “I get this feeling of euphoria.”

A math high? You bet. And it’s well-earned. “He is the most diligent student I have seen at Colby,” said Professor of Mathematics Ben Mathes. “No one works harder than Schu.”

Fernando Gouvea, Colby’s Carter Professor of Mathematics, said that He works especially fast. “He understands quickly, computes quickly, thinks quickly.” What’s more, “He’s creative when he finds solutions to problems, and his problem sets are often so good that one could use them as answer keys.”

Math competitions have long been part of He’s life, beginning as an elementary school student in Beijing, China. When He was in high school, his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he took college-level courses at Georgetown University. He applied early decision to Colby, and impressively, the mathematics and physics double major finished the requirements for his math major by the end of his sophomore year, leaving him time to pursue other passions, like learning Japanese and playing the French horn.

The Putnam Competition, administered by the Mathematical Association of America, took place Dec. 7, 2019, when 4,229 students from 570 institutions solved 12 problems in two, three-hour sessions. Eight Colby students participated in the competition, and the students with the three highest scores were grouped as a team by Putnam. He, Nathaniel Ferguson ’21, and Saam Rasool ’22 became Colby’s team. The team earned a rank of 77 out of 488 qualifying schools.   

The other students who participated in the competition include Jeremy Barnes ’20, Annie Holden ’20, Daeseong Hwang ’21, Frederic Labbe ’23, and Charles Parham ’20.

He has more than a year to determine his path beyond Colby. Graduate school is an option, but he’s also interested in joining a research group that tackles “very hard problems,” he said. “I want to help push the human race forward.”