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Marietta's Potter ranks among best undergraduate math students Print E-mail

Harrison Potter '08 is a math junkie.

He loves the challenge of solving a difficult equation or collaborating with fellow mathematicians on a perplexing problem.

It's not too often that the Marietta College student who is double majoring in math and physics is stumped. But that was before he took on the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

"I first asked about taking the Putnam Exam in the fall of my freshman year. So I asked Dr. (John) Tynan if I could take it expecting to hear that it was only for a very few kids in the country and that Marietta College didn't offer it," Potter said. "I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he could order the test so that I could take it, along with a few other math majors."

Excited but not sure what to expect, Potter's first attempt at one of the nation's most challenging math competitions was an eye-opener for the Rochester, N.Y., native.

"I was sure it couldn't possibly be as hard as everyone made it out to be," he said. "I was surprised at how puzzling most of the problems were. Often I didn't know how to start or even what was being asked. I enjoyed the experience, played with some of the problems, and managed to get two points total on the exam (out of 120 possible points)."

With a normal median score of 1 to 2, Potter's performance was actually commendable for a first attempt. He followed that performance with a 0 and 6 his sophomore and junior years.

Determined to give it his best effort this year, Potter excelled by scoring a 24 and placing among the top 500 in the nation in the 68th annual competition (out of 3,753 contestants).

"I really just wanted to prove to myself that the test was difficult, but not impossible," said Potter, a McCoy Scholar. "So I'm happy with my score. Better than another 6 or a 0 for sure. I am not eligible to take the test ever again, but I plan to one day work through most of the past Putnam Exam problems, as they can usually be found online and they are really very clever and interesting problems to work through most of the time. Often there are several ways to do them as well. It's good mental exercise."

Dr. Matt Menzel, assistant professor of mathematics, said Potter contacted him about doing an independent study in problem solving in the fall. They met weekly to go over competition problems and Potter's solutions.

"We talked about not only how to solve problems but also how to effectively write complete solutions for the problems that he had solved. Harrison has done extremely well at regional mathematics competitions while at Marietta College. He had struggled, however, with the Putnam Exam, which forces students to work independently on significantly more challenging mathematics problems," Menzel said. "In his free time, Harrison often would work through past Putnam problems he found interesting and present them to anyone who was interested on the white board in the Math/Computer Science office suite. Harrison's internal motivation simplified the process, as he always had plenty of problems and solutions to go over."

Potter will continue his education in the fall as a graduate student at Duke University.