I wrote this blog which was originally published on mathvalues.org
International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) is the World Championship Mathematics Competition for high school students. The first IMO was held in 1959 in Romania and only 7 countries participated that year. Now, the competition has expanded to over 100 countries spanning major regions of the world. The team from the United States won the first place title in the most recent IMO, the 2018 International Mathematical Olympiad and also won the title in both 2015 and 2016.
Dr. Viorel Barbu, a participant in the first IMO, who has become President of the Mathematics Department at the Romanian Academy brilliantly wrote that “Mathematics has always been a fresh and dynamical field of human creativity and a fundamental science to the benefit of scientific knowledge and technical achievements. It is the role and duty of young mathematicians to bring and develop new ideas and to construct new bridges between mathematics and other scientific fields.”
I have always wondered about the contribution of IMO participants to the field of mathematics and science overall. I came across this fascinating research from Dr. Agarwal and Dr. Patrick Gaule. These researchers analyzed data examining the career and scientific output of participants who competed and performed well in IMO over a 20 years period. This research points to a very positive correlation between the points scored at the IMO and the mathematical knowledge produced, which was measured by the number of mathematical publications and mathematics citations. It also proved that students who performed well on IMO are more likely to become professional mathematicians, measured by getting a Ph.D. in mathematics.
I found some really interesting observations in the research, listed below:
–Strong performers at the IMO have a disproportionate ability to produce frontier mathematical knowledge compared to PhD graduates and even PhD graduates from elite schools.
-The conditional probability that an IMO gold medalist will become a Fields medalist is two order of magnitudes larger than the corresponding probability for of a PhD graduate from a top 10 mathematics program.
-Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani, who passed away at a very young age, was an IMO gold medalist with a perfect score, and the first woman to win the Fields medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. Terence Tao received a gold medal at the 29th IMO and went on to win the Fields medal and is one of the most productive mathematicians in the world.
-Around 22% of IMO participants have a PhD in mathematics; of those, around a third have a PhD in mathematics from a top 10 school (7% of the total IMO participants). 1% of IMO participants became IMC speakers, and 0.2% became Fields medalists.
This research paper clearly articulates the contributions of IMO participants to the field of mathematics. This paper gives strong reason to encourage everyone to participate in math competitions beginning in elementary school, and through college, as problem-solving skills acquired through participating in math competitions have long lasting positive effects that helps you whether you pursue a professional or academic career.
The last time a female qualified for the IMO from the United States was in 2007 and 3 female US students have scored medals at IMO. Their mathematics career and contributions validate the research findings. Sherry Gong represented the United States in 2005 and 2007, winning a Gold Medal in 2007. She famously scored over a 100 in Harvard’s problem solving course, Math 55, and went on to get her Ph.D. at MIT in mathematics. Alison Miller represented the United States in 2004 and also won the Gold Medal. Alison Miller studied mathematics at Harvard and finished her Ph.D. in mathematics at Princeton University. Melanie Wood represented the United States in the 1998 and 1999 IMO and won Silver Medals in both years. She was the first female to qualify for the IMO from United States. She completed her Ph.D. in 2009 at Princeton University and is currently a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin.