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March 30, 2004

UW team takes top honors in worldwide math contest for third year in a row

A three-member team of University of Washington students — all local residents and all products of public education — have taken top honors in an international mathematics competition, beating teams from such math powerhouses as MIT, Yale and the University of California, Berkeley.

Again.

It’s the fourth time in three years that the UW has placed an undergraduate team in the rarefied top-tier of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications’ annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling. Of this year’s 599 participating teams, just seven, including one from the UW, were judged to be outstanding winners.

“This is just phenomenal that we had another winner this year,” said mathematics Professor Jim Morrow, who acted as adviser for the four UW teams that entered the 2004 contest. “We’re very pleased to have such consistently good students. They’re top-notch mathematicians.”

The winning team members are Tracy Lovejoy of Kenmore, Sasha Aravkin of Bothell and Casey Schneider-Mizell of Olympia. All are seniors.

Last year, the UW placed two teams in the top category. It was the first time in the then 19-year history of the competition that one university had teams win for both problems that comprise the contest.

In a way, the UW had a second win this year as well, said Selim Tuncel, chairman of the mathematics department. A member of one of last year’s winning Husky teams, Bellevue native Jeff Giansiracusa, is now at Oxford University in England as a graduate student. He coached this year’s Oxford team, which joined the UW as one of the seven champions.

The contest began at 5 p.m. on Feb. 5, when officials posted two problems on the Web. The teams had until 5 p.m. on Feb. 9 to select one problem and devise a solution. Competitors could access sources on the Web or in the library, but could not consult with anyone outside their team.

Morrow arranged for the teams to have 24-hour computer access and isolated spaces to do their work. But once the four-day contest started, they were on their own.

“At the beginning I think we all felt a little pressure because the UW had won two years in a row,” Lovejoy said. “We didn’t want to be the ones to break that.”

When the problems were posted, Aravkin said the group debated for a couple of hours over which to attempt. One involved mathematically assessing how unique fingerprints are. The other dealt with lines at amusement parks, and students were tasked with constructing a way to manage the lines that would be efficient and fair to customers. The fingerprint problem seemed more interesting and there were lots of available data — too much data, as it turned out. The task of wading through and sifting all the information seemed daunting given the tight deadline, Aravkin said, so the three decided on the second problem and got to work.

But they soon ran into the opposite problem.

“It’s amazing how little useful data there is on amusement parks,” Aravkin said. “There are a lot of advertisements, but nothing that would be useful to a mathematician.”

Later, group members said, they realized that the dearth of information was probably intentional — amusement parks don’t want competitors to know which of their rides is the most popular and how they manage their crowds.

The group was in a spot, Lovejoy said. He and his teammates needed data, fast.

It was about lunchtime, so he headed to the Husky Den cafeteria in the Husky Union Building. Not to eat, but to watch the lines at the Pagliacci Pizza and Subway sandwich franchises.

“That was all I could think of,” he said. “I counted the number of people in line every minute. I was there for about 20 minutes.”

When Lovejoy got back, they put the data in a graph and it jibed well with the theoretical models they had constructed.

“That was more or less the only real data we had,” he said. “The fact that we went the extra mile to get real data may have been one of the things that set us apart.”

Even though all three of this year’s winners are graduating, the prospects for next year’s contest are good, Morrow said. Two of the other three UW teams that competed achieved a meritorious ranking, putting them in the top 10 percent of participants. And only one member of those teams is graduating.

“I think we stand a good chance of continuing our streak,” Morrow said.

Lovejoy agreed.

“They’ll do great,” he said. “They have the advantage of having done it before, they’ll have a better idea of what the judges are looking for, and they are very creative people. I know all of them well.”

All three of the 2004 winners are mathematics majors, each with an additional focus: Schneider-Mizell and Lovejoy are also in the physics program, and Aravkin is studying computer science.

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For more information, contact Morrow at (206) 543-1161 or morrow@math.washington.edu , or Tuncel at (206) 543-1151 or tuncel@math.washington.edu. The students are also available for comment and can be reached as follows: Lovejoy, (206) 779-7773; Schneider-Mizell, (206) 484-2179; and Aravkin, (206) 459-4734.

Information about the competition, including the problems contestants attempted to solve and overall results, are available at http://www.comap.com/undergraduate/contests/mcm/

Information on the local teams, including copies of the winning papers, is available at http://www.math.washington.edu/~morrow/mcm/mcm.html