News

Ding ’12 Places Fourth in Intel Science Talent Search

On March 13, David Ding ’12 placed fourth as a national finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search (STS), earning a $40,000 scholarship for his research on the mathematical theory of infinitesimal Cherednik algebras, a principle that examines the symmetry of vector spaces. Intel STS is the oldest and one of the most prestigious research-based science competitions in the United States. Ding said, “I did not expect [to be named a finalist]. I found out about it on January 25, and I was really excited and overcome with surprise. I didn’t want to do homework or anything that day.” According to the Intel STS website, this year 1,839 students submitted their research to the competition to contend for $1.25 million in awards. On January 11, 300 students were recognized as semifinalists. Two weeks later, 40 finalists were announced and invited to Washington, DC, in March for the final round of judging. The finalists were awarded scholarships, ranging from $7,500 to $100,000, and had the chance to meet President Barack Obama and Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Ding said, “We found out on the first day that [the Intel Foundation] had scheduled a meeting [with Obama], and we were all really excited that night. When we actually got to meet [Obama], it was only for a few minutes, but it was really cool.” The finalists also toured national monuments and historical sites around the city and had the opportunity to meet renowned scientists. For the final round, judges also interviewed the finalists to ask them about their projects and test them on their general knowledge of science. According to Ding, there were four sessions of interviews, designed to get the finalists to come “out of [their] comfort zones” and to think on their feet. Ding recalled having to describe how pianos produce sound, estimate the percentage of a computer’s total power used by a screen and explain why wildebeests cross rivers. Ding explained, “The question was why the first wildebeest decides to cross the river since it would almost certainly be caught [by crocodiles anticipating the crossing] and so natural selection should select for the wildebeests that do not cross first. I had no clue why a wildebeest would cross the river, and the judges were all staring at me for a response.” “After the interview, I searched on Google, and I wasn’t able to find any answers. Other finalists who also encountered this question all answered different things, and none of us knows the true reason why a wildebeest would be the first to cross; the wildebeest quickly became a inside joke of this year’s STS.” Ding said that one of the most rewarding parts of his entire experience was “definitely the people [he] met.” Ding wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “I enjoyed meeting the other 39 finalists, who are all incredibly gifted and accomplished. They include a guy who did research on quantum cryptography and also is a professional magician, a guy who got three first-place awards for performances in Carnegie Hall and did research in graph theory [and] a girl who developed a $500 landmine detection system.” In Washington, Ding also got to meet Brian Greene, physicist at Columbia University and a best-selling author, Walter Isaacson, the author of Steve Jobs’ biography, Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel and Jim Gates, physicist and member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Ding wrote, “Before the competition, I would freak out about meeting someone really famous… At the competition, I met so many famous people… that I am no longer so nervous about discussing my project with anyone or telling anyone about my experiences.” Ding also expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to work with Sasha Tsymbaliuk, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Pavel Etingof, Professor of Mathematics at MIT. Ding conducted his research on the mathematical theory of infinitesimal Cherednik algebras during his Upper year through the MIT Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering and Science for High School Students (PRIMES). According to its website, PRIMES is a “free, year-long after-school research program” for high school students, who work with MIT researchers on “unsolved problems in mathematics, computer science and computational biology.” Most Saturdays throughout his Upper year, Ding commuted by train to Boston and spent the entire day doing research and working on his project. He did homework on the train to keep up with his six-course load. Ding said that working at MIT was “an amazing but difficult experience.” He described how Tsymbaliuk sent him a set of lecture notes on linear algebra a month before they met. Ding wrote, “I was able to work through the notes without too much trouble, so I thought that research shouldn’t be too bad. Then [after] I met Sasha at MIT, he gave me a set of lecture notes on Representation Theory, the area of my research, and started explaining… ‘irreducible representations’ and ‘homomorphisms of representations.’ I was completely lost.” “I ended up spending a few hours back at Andover trying to read through the first few pages of the lecture notes. The first few weeks of my research, I was constantly in awe of how [Tsymbaliuk] managed to grasp abstract concepts that I have absolutely no intuition of,” Ding continued. “My research at MIT showed me how much more math I had to learn; what I know already is but a small fragment of what I need to know for my research, and my research is but a small fragment of mathematics.” However, Ding said that one of the most exciting parts of his research was “simply learning the mathematics.” “Looking back, I realize how easy I find concepts that I struggled with a year ago.” Ding said that working at MIT was a “humbling experience” that gave him the opportunity to learn math “not explained in textbooks.” “Mathematics is amazingly collaborative,” he wrote. “I met with Professor Etingof several times, and he would discuss grand ideas he had of future research questions or give me key insights on how to approach a problem. His genius is incomprehensible, and his excitement contagious. By the end of the meeting, I too feel really excited and motivated to answer questions that I wouldn’t have understood before the meeting; sometimes, I would feel excited about a problem that I still don’t understand!”