Jennifer Galactica (habituallydaft) wrote in uw,
Jennifer Galactica

from the daily

UW trio first in math contest

By Lauren Graf

Three students presented a problem for mathematics professor James Morrow.

They were too good.

"There were many times that I had to rank them for awards and admissions, so I consulted other faculty, and they still couldn't tell the difference," said Morrow, who teaches the honors advanced calculus sequence.

Sasha Aravkin, Tracy Lovejoy and Casey Schneider-Mizell have shown the world just how good they are. The trio, coached by Morrow, triumphed in an international math competition, outscoring teams from MIT, Yale and UC-Berkeley. The team shared honors with teams from Harvard, Oxford and the University of Electronic Science and Technology in Chengdu, China.

Out of the contest's 599 competing teams, the judges named only seven as "outstanding."

The trio's friendship goes back to the day Aravkin asked to borrow Lovejoy's Gameboy during their days in the middle-school math contest circuit. Lovejoy and Schneider-Mizell, both teaching assistants, currently share an office in Padelford.

Their camaraderie is evident in their dialogue -- they finish each other's sentences and they laugh at things that wouldn't seem funny to outsiders.

This bond was also evident in the trio's contest-winning 20-page paper, which they completed in 96 hours.

The three seniors, asked to design an efficient amusement park line system, devised a model using a Kalman filter -- an adaptive algorithm that took data from previous days to predict the current day's wait time. Morrow, a UW professor since 1969 and winner of the 2003 UW Distinguished Teaching Award, had never heard of a Kalman filter.

Knowing that contest judges valued practical examples of theoretical models, and taking into account the lack of available information on amusement park lines, the team faced a dilemma. They knew they needed a concrete example.

Lovejoy walked to the HUB and counted the number of people in line at Subway and Pagliacci Pizza, put the numbers in a graph and found that the data matched the model.

To Morrow, the team's success is remarkable for two reasons: The three are contest rookies, and this is Morrow's fourth team in the past three years to take top honors.

Morrow has a habit of selecting the best and brightest from his classes to compete in this competition, which is sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications.

Last year, his teams made history. For the first time in the contest's 19 years, one school -- the UW -- took two of the top positions. One of the UW's winners last year, Jeff Giansiracusa, coached this year's Oxford team to victory.

This year's UW team had rejected offers from Morrow to compete in previous years because, according to Morrow, they didn't have the time to commit. The team began studying the format of the competition last fall.

When Morrow posted his students' paper in the math department, faculty were amazed undergraduates wrote the document. Morrow agrees with his colleagues' reaction and adds that he couldn't have done this kind of work when he was an undergraduate.

"I don't know where they came from and I don't know where they're going, but I am blinded by how good they are," Morrow said. "They're the best in the world."

Lovejoy, a math and physics major, has accepted an admissions offer from the UW's graduate school. Aravkin, a math and computer science major, and Schneider-Mizell, a math and physics major, are mulling over various graduate school offers.
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