U.S.A. is #1 at International Mathematical Olympiad: Team Head Coach Hertz Fellow Po-Shen Loh

September 24, 2015
Hertz Staff
Livermore, Calif

Making mathematics history, there was a big win for the United States and for Po-Shen Loh, Hertz Fellow and associate professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, who led the U.S. pre-collegiate math team as head coach to take first place at the 56th Annual International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Held annually since 1959, the IMO is a global mathematics competition for pre-collegiate students. At its inception, the IMO took place in Romania with only seven other countries participating, all from Eastern Europe who were members of the Warsaw Pact. Since then, the IMO has expanded its membership to over 100 countries, with the U.S. joining it in 1974. At this year’s competition, under Professor Loh’s leadership, Team U.S.A. outperformed them all to take home the gold. “Some of the problems this year were unusual,” Loh says. “That leveled the playing field a bit, and our team was able to capitalize,” Loh told the Caltech Alumni Association.

So how does an elite team of six math minded teenagers from a nation of 300 million find themselves competing on the global stage for their country? The Mathematical Association of America organizes a series of competitions which ultimately identify the six person team, starting from a pool of 200,000 students who enter at the first round.

“If you can solve one question, you’re a bit of a genius,” Hertz Fellow and U.S. head coach Po-Shen Loh told NPR. This is an interesting metric for just how challenging the competition is, and our nation is always in need of the right environments for budding geniuses. We depend on them to stay more technologically advanced than the rest of the world. To this end, our nation remains secure.

Head coach Po-Shen Loh (far left) and assistant coaches John Berman and Alex Zhai (far right) flank winning team members: Shyam Narayanan, David Stoner, Michael Kural, Ryan Alweiss, Yang Liu and Allen Liu.

The latest Pew Research report titled, “U.S. Students Improving – Slowly—in Math and Science, but Still Lagging Internationally” that was posted on February 2 of this year by Drew Desilver, stated “While U.S. students are scoring higher on national math assessments than they did two decades ago, they still rank around the middle of the pack in international comparisons, and behind many other advanced industrial nations.” Even though recent reports tell a story of the U.S. not leading in mathematics internationally, Loh told NPR that, “The Olympiad results were proof that top Americans can hold their own with representatives from other countries, despite rising alarm in recent years over perceived decreases in the quality of American math education”.

What’s the take away from this year’s victory at the IMO for the United States? “It’s been 21 years,” Loh told The Washington Post. “This is a huge deal”, and the White House agreed. It tweeted on July 14 of this year, “Go Team USA! America took first place in the International Mathematical Olympiad for the first time since 1994”.

“This is a matter of national pride,” Loh explained. “One reason we are super excited is that for the past five years or so, we’ve been consistently second or third. It’s actually quite difficult to win. We are going up against a natural population disadvantage in the sense that China, which is the usual winner, has four times as many people.” Loh told The Washington Post.

Professor Loh has a long history with the Olympiad that dates back before he was a Hertz Fellow. He won a silver medal at the 1999 International Mathematical Olympiad as a high school student. Fast forward, in 2004, he received his Hertz Fellowship to pursue his PhD in mathematics at Princeton University. At that time, Loh was already active in the training of high school students at the national Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, whose mission is to find and prepare the six members of the U.S. team for the IMO. From his hard work and dedication, in 2004, Professor Loh not only received the prestigious Hertz Fellowship, but also served as the deputy team leader for Team America at the IMO in Athens, Greece, where our national team placed second. After completing his PhD, Loh again, served as deputy team leader for the United States at the International Mathematical Olympiad from 2010 to 2013. Afterwards Professor Loh was promoted to national lead coach of the U.S.A. IMO team, and on his second attempt, Team U.S.A. took home the gold for our great nation.

Earlier this year, Professor Loh received an NSF CAREER award, the most prestigious NSF award for junior faculty, which honors outstanding research combined with a commitment to teaching. Hertz President, Robbee Kosak, is especially proud of her former colleague from Carnegie Mellon, “From the time he joined CMU’s faculty in 2010, word of Loh’s commitment to teaching and to his students quickly circulated. He is the epitome of the extraordinarily gifted and dedicated scholar-teacher.”

Loh is the founder of the educational technology startup expii.com, a crowd-sourced platform for the world to share interactive lessons in math and science. He says, “I spend a very significant amount of time developing this now, and it is my public initiative (which I started after becoming national coach) to lift the math/science level across all regions and demographic groups, both in the U.S.A. and globally. My personal goal is to multiply the number of people worldwide who like math and science by 10x.”