Scaling Simple Solutions to Global Significance: Po-Shen Loh Shares Stories of Discovery in ASM

Po-Shen Loh, professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University and national coach of the United States International Math Olympiad team, spoke to the Andover community during last Thursday’s All-School Meeting (ASM). During his speech, Loh emphasized the importance of creating scalable impacts, and shared his story about the development of NOVID, a pandemic control app based on exploiting selfishness.

Introduced by Math Club members Angeline Zhao ’25 and Andy Xu ’24, Loh’s visit was hosted by the Math Department. Xu spoke on his observations regarding the student body’s reception of the ASM. He mentioned how Loh catered his presentation to be relevant to fields outside of mathematics, providing valuable information to students regardless of their interests.

“I saw a lot of people really paying attention, and a lot of people talking about it afterward… I think Professor Loh is the face of math competitions and math developments that are happening right now… [He] told me right before the ASM that he wasn’t planning on making [his speech] a math lecture; he was rather trying to inspire people. Whatever field someone may be in, it doesn’t have to be math, anyone can use [Loh’s] knowledge to create new innovations that help society as a whole,” said Xu.

During the ASM, Loh discussed his accidental discovery of a new method to solve quadratic equations, encouraging students to see that making simple changes can produce the greatest consequences. He highlighted that small changes which affect great numbers of people.

“What I really learned from this was that…the way to get into the New York Times for doing math is not by proving the hardest math theory, it’s by doing something that’s in middle school. I want to emphasize that this is not a super deep thing, but it [shows] how if you want to have an impact, it’s not necessarily that by doing something which is absolutely the most extreme in one area, that is the biggest impact. Somehow the impact is that everybody needs to solve quadratic equations at some point in their life,” said Loh.

Maggie Fulop ’26 commented on Loh’s engaging storytelling, pointing out the relevance of his insights to fields outside of mathematics. She mentioned how Loh’s points about simple solutions didn’t discredit complex thinking, allowing for students to take Loh’s advice without needing to sacrifice anything.

“I found Professor Loh very entertaining. As someone who doesn’t consider myself particularly math oriented, I would say Professor Loh did a wonderful job explaining the connections between math and other disciplines… To me, his talk felt more like a conversation with an interesting and accomplished person than a prepared speech which was really nice, [and] I enjoyed how Professor Loh emphasized that sometimes the most effective solutions are simple and somewhat obvious, and that while out-of-the-box thinking is invaluable, it can come from anywhere,” wrote Fulop in an email to The Phillipian.

Loh then detailed the process of creating NOVID and how he built a team and made his way through the scientific community to push the app into governmental use. He reiterated his previous points about seemingly obvious solutions, speaking to how NOVID’s concept could’ve been realized by anyone.

“What I learned from [creating NOVID] is if there’s a big problem in the world, if you can ever come up with a way that aligns [everyone’s] incentives, you can actually scale out a solution beyond what anybody imagined before… I was thinking, ‘How do we help more people come up with out-of-the-box ideas?’ Loh continued, “Usually, when someone looks at [NOVID], they’re like, ‘I could have thought of that.’ I want you to feel that way, by the way. I want you to feel like ‘I could have thought of that’ because there’s a lot more to be discovered.” 

Loh concluded by urging students to self-examine their reasons for pursuing their interests, placing importance on the value of true generosity over talent. He asked the audience to think about how to create a lasting positive impact on others.

“When I talk to high school students, I like to say, ‘Look at your heart, think about what you actually want to do.’ The world is full of people who have actual abilities. But what we want to help, whether it’s universities or whoever else, we want to help the people who are actually generous, who, after they get good at something, they’re going to do something with it. If all you’re going to do is get rich and have your own thing, we don’t need you to do that. So I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be too controversial, but I’ll say that the way that I always work is I want to help the people who actually want to help other people,” said Loh.