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U.S. girls' math team takes home Olympic gold

  1. September 04, 2009
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Math champions (pictured below): The U.S. team at the China Girls Math Olympiad dons its medals during the closing ceremony of the competition. From left to right, front row: Carolyn Kim, Patricia Li, Jing-Jing (Shiyu) Li, Joy Zheng, Cynthia Day, Ramya Rangan, and Elizabeth Synge. Back row: coaches Jennifer Iglesias and Zuming Feng.

A team of seven American high-school girls is celebrating the medals they've won at an Olympic competition that's about math skills, not sports.

The 2009 China Girls Math Olympiad (CGMO), held August 12-16 in Xiamen, China, featured more than 200 female high-school contestants from around the world. The U.S. team walked away with two gold medals, three silver medals and two bronze medals.

The goal of the CGMO is to get girls interested and involved in high-level mathematics. Before traveling to China, the girls spent three weeks at the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, a camp organized by the Mathematical Association of America at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Before 2007, when the training camp started inviting CGMO contestants, only one or two campers each year were girls. And it wasn't until 1998 that a female — Melanie Matchett Wood, now an assistant professor at Stanford University — was invited to represent the U.S. in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO).

"Girls don't get as much encouragement as boys do in preparing for these competitions and going forward with them," said Robert Bryant, president of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, a co-sponsor of the team.

This year's Olympiad had some dramatic moments for the U.S. team. Owing to fears over the H1N1 flu, the girls had their temperatures taken each morning before the exams. On the morning of the first exam, U.S. contestant Elizabeth Synge had a slight fever. Although she was allowed to take the test in a separate room, she was taken to the hospital afterwards and tested for the flu while the rest of the U.S. team members — along with teams from the Philippines, Singapore and Hong Kong, who had shared an exam room with the Americans — were quarantined in hotel rooms for six hours. The U.S. team passed the time playing cards; luckily, no one was infected, and they were able to continue with the competition.

The two exams took place from 8 a.m. to noon, and each consisted of four essay-style proofs. Each problem was worth a total of 15 points. Girls who scored more than 81 points total during the competition won gold medals; these included American Jing-Jing Li, who described claiming the medal as "one of the happiest moments of my life" in the team's blog, and Shijie Joy Zheng. Despite her fever, Synge was only three points away, with 78 points. "I hadn't been expecting to do particularly well," Synge says. "I was thrilled."

Research suggests that the gender discrepancy in math interest is the result of environmental influences, not inherent differences in ability. While the U.S. has only ever sent three girls to the IMO — Wood in 1998 and 1999, Alison Miller in 2004, and Sherry Gong in 2005 and 2007 — Bulgaria has sent 21 girls and Russia has sent 15. The deciding factor is most likely "the attitude that young girls are brought up with," said Joseph Gallian, a professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and a former president of the Mathematical Association of America. Here in the U.S., "if they're really outstanding in math, there's some negativity associated with that," he said.

The training and the competition provide a possible stepping stone to the IMO, too. Three of the high scorers on this year's team — Jing- Jing Li, Shijie Joy Zheng and Elizabeth Synge — are underclassmen, so they could qualify for the IMO next year. The two competitions share the same qualifying exams, so girls who make it into the CGMO are automatically considered for the IMO as well.

Perhaps most importantly, the camp and the CGMO provide chances for the girls to meet other girls like them. "I've been the only girl in a lot of math things. It's nice to be with other peers," Li said. Rangan notes that "when I go to other math camps or math clubs, the ratio of girls to guys is crazy, usually one to six."

Perhaps partially because of this support, several of the girls who have participated in the CGMO in past years are pursuing math professionally. Jennifer Iglesias, who coached this year's team with Zuming Feng and was a member of the U.S. CGMO team in both 2007 and 2008, is now a math major at Harvey Mudd College. And Sherry Gong, who was on the 2007 CGMO team and went on to win seventh place in the 2007 IMO competition, is now a math major at Harvard University. Li, who will be a senior in high school this fall, might follow in their footsteps. "Ever since I was little, I've always wanted to be a math professor," she said.