Camaraderie and Competition Spur Excellence in Mathematics

Natural Sciences5 MIN READ

An academic friendship bolsters three sophomores’ scores in the field’s preeminent competition

Pedro Santos ’26, Thor Gabrielsen ’26, and Eddie O’Sullivan ’26 (left to right) found that camaraderie and a spirit of healthy competition were instrumental in their exceptional scores in the 84th William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
April 11, 2024

The beauty of mathematics and a love of competition have spawned an unexpected friendship for three Colby sophomores, launching each to new heights in mathematics’ foremost undergraduate competition.

For Thor Gabrielsen ’26, Eddie O’Sullivan ’26, and Pedro Santos ’26, mathematics comes naturally. But what they’ve learned at Colby is that collaborative work makes them stronger individuals. The proof is evidenced by their scores from the 84th William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

Out of the more than 3,000 high-achieving undergraduates across the United States and Canada who participated in this year’s Putnam Competition, Gabrielsen placed in the top 200, Santos in the top third, and O’Sullivan in the top half. Each one improved their score substantially from the previous year.

“A very nice showing,” said Professor of Mathematics Leo Livshits, who initiated Colby’s participation in the notoriously difficult competition in 1996.

While several factors contributed to the improvements, Livshits believes the students’ camaraderie and ethos of healthy competition were instrumental. It’s a spirit born in the Honors Calculus course all three took as first-year students. The two-semester course challenges students to use ingenuity and intuition as much as algorithms and formulas to solve problems.

It’s a course that incentivizes collaboration. “I tell them from day one they can’t lone-wolf this course. It’s not possible,” said the professor.

“We all met, and we understood each other,” said O’Sullivan. “We had similar experiences in the sense that we were ahead in math in high school, and now we’re in college. The idea that we were all going through a similar struggle of Honors Calc made us closer.”

Anything but procedural

Livshits has observed that students who score highest in the Putnam Competition usually come through Honor Calculus, a magnet course for extra-strong students who love math. “They love that kind of math, right? The thinking math as opposed to calculated math,” he said.

“Putnam requires a lot of math and a lot of chewing on something very difficult. And that experience is very much aligned with Honors Calc. In a more regular class, you’re often taught a procedure and you apply it,” Livshits continued. “Putnam problems are never procedural.”

Sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America, the Putnam Competition includes 12 questions worth 10 points each. It is administered on campus in two three-hour sessions with six problems in each session. Scoring is strict, and unfinished work scores much less than correctly completed problems.

“They are thinkers. They are fountains of ideas. Math is their medium.”

Professor of Math Leo Livshits, referring to Santos, Gabrielsen, and O’Sullivan

mathematics formula on chalkboard

To the uninitiated, the competition sounds grueling. But this trio of sophomores describes it as “fun.” At least in the same sense chess is fun, said O’Sullivan. “Using your brain competitively is always fun.”

Out of a possible 120 points, this year’s median score was 10, higher than usual. For the second year in a row, Gabrielsen was Colby’s top-scoring competitor. Last year, he scored 23; this year, 41. “Closing in on the top fifth percentile,” he said mischievously.

Building on a history of competitions

Gabrielsen thrives on math competitions. He began competing in middle school in Rockport, Maine, and as a high schooler finished first with the Maine Association of Math League all four years and holds the record for the highest MAML score in state history. Now a double major in mathematics and computer science, he hopes his Putnam scores will attract job recruiters. He believes this year’s score helped him earn a coveted REU, Research Experience for Undergraduates, which he’ll engage in over the upcoming summer.

In Honors Calculus, he enjoyed playful, impromptu competitions with O’Sullivan and forged an academic bond with him and Santos. Now, as peers and sophomores, they are all teaching assistants for this year’s Honors Calculus course, still tethered to the course that served them so well.

For Santos, the course certainly helped him prepare for the Putnam and advanced math overall. He developed a clarity of thought by writing solutions to problems and making sure his ideas have a solid foundation, are well-developed and coherent, and build up to a definitive conclusion.

Santos came to Colby from the coastal city of Salvador in Brazil, where he competed in math and physics competitions in high school. He’s drawn to competitions for their “environments of thinking” and problem-solving aspects. He scored 19 points in this year’s Putnam Competition, up from eight a year ago. At Colby, he is a physics and mathematics double major with a minor in computer science.

“Math for me is to some extent supporting my physics education. I just like to see new ideas and see like, oh, this is a cool trick that you can do. So, you know, the exposure to different ideas is very interesting.”

Fountains of ideas

This semester, Santos is working his way through a graduate-level textbook in linear algebra as an independent study. O’Sullivan is engaged in independent study and research on top of a physics and mathematics double major with a minor in computer science. Gabrielsen is taking upper-level math and computer science courses with juniors and seniors.

“They’re all doing stuff way beyond what sophomores do,” according to Livshits. He is only mildly surprised.

“They are thinkers. They are fountains of ideas. Math is their medium,” said the professor. “Sure, they struggle with it. But even those who love swimming have to exert effort.”

O’Sullivan described sitting for the Putnam Competition as “climbing the unclimbable mountain.” Last year the Simsbury, Conn., native received zero points, but this year he exceeded his goal of 10 points by earning 11. He can’t accept that the highest-scoring Putnam winners—primarily from MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard—are “just smarter” than he is.

“I may never get a 90, but I have to try,” said O’Sullivan. That’s why he attends weekly Putnam study sessions and hopes to form an official student club based solely on preparing for the competition.

O’Sullivan believes he and his peers share a mutual respect for one another, which can only grow in the two remaining years they’ll share on Mayflower Hill.

“There’s still this whole world that we don’t know about,” he said. “We want to learn about it together.”