It is with much enthusiasm that GR Gokul, Sub-Collector of Devikulam, in Idukki district of Kerala, narrates how he spoke to his mathematics professor after about a decade. Professor A Vijayakumar had dialled Gokul’s number, as he was trying to get back in touch with the talented students who have taken part in the Regional Maths Olympiad (RMO) of the past 25 years to bring them together to mark its silver jubilee early next year. For those on that list, the Olympiad was the stepping stone to the beginning of a successful career.
“As a native of Palakkad, I did not receive much training for my Engineering entrance exam. When I secured the second place at the Regional Maths Olympiad, it gave me the confidence to excel in my future endeavours. From then on, everything was possible. I graduated from NIT-Calicut, Kozhikode, in Electronics Engineering and passed my civil services exam in the first attempt,” says Gokul. He secured the second place in RMO 2005.
Donning the role of a coordinator of the RMO in Kerala since 1990, Professor Vijayakumar has seen some exceptional talents like Gokul pass through the National and International Maths Olympiad to hold highly reputed positions in some of the best organisations in the world. Vijayakumar is a professor in Mathematics at Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) and writes popular articles on various aspects of Mathematics, in Malayalam. More than just coordinating the event, he has led around 400 such students to success.
Now, he is planning a reunion of all those who were qualified for INMO during 1991-2004 in February 2015 at the CUSAT campus after the Regional Maths Olympiad scheduled to be held on December 7. Vijayakumar has contacted more than 50 of them and is in search of the others.
“For those who love the subject and want to acquire laurels in the field, the get-together will be an opportunity to meet great talents in the field of Mathematics. The subject has a much wider scope than what we can imagine. Only when budding talents are given the opportunity to understand the possibilities, will they make a target to achieve them,” says Vijayakumar.
How the Maths Olympiad began
It was in 1894, in Hungary that the concept of organising a talent hunt in the field of Maths originated, with the Eotvos Mathematical Competition. In 1959, this became the International Mathematical Olympiad with the participation of seven countries from the East European block. India started participating in 1989 when Germany hosted it and secured the 15th position among 50 countries. Since then, about 400 students have appeared for the National Olympiad, breaking the conventional belief that Mathematics is a hard nut to crack.
The Olympiad is first held at the regional level, Regional Mathematical Olympiad, during October-December. Those who qualify participate at the national level, Indian National Mathematical Olympiad (INMO), held in February annually and the final round, the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), is held in July. At present, more than 80 countries participate in this war of minds.
Prizes, Scholarships and Follow-up programmes
Five toppers of the Kerala RMO will be awarded Professor CS Venkataraman Memorial prize and a cash prize of `5,000 each, sponsored by the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment. All students selected for INMO will be given merit certificates and INMO awardees are eligible for scholarships from the National Board for Higher Mathematics, a unit of the Department of Atomic Energy, for higher studies.
Kerala’s first break
It was only on December 2, 1990, that Kerala first participated in the Olympiad.
“Then second rank holder in RMO, Asha Alex of Mar Ivanios College, Thiruvananthapuram, became the second rank holder at the Indian National Maths Olympiad in 1991. This gave me the confidence to organise this event and show the rest of India that Kerala students are very talented in Maths,” says Vijayakumar.
The NBHM has been organising Mathematical Olympiads in India. About 20 students from the RMO will be selected for INMO, and 30 of the toppers will be invited for a training camp to select an Indian team, consisting of six members, for IMO. This year the IMO will be held in Thailand. India hosted the IMO only once — in 1996. The best performance of the country was in 2001 in the United States, when India secured the seventh rank, with two Gold, two Silver, and two Bronze medals.
Sandeep Varma of Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Trippunithura, secured the first rank in RMO-1997 and in 1998 secured 100 per cent marks in INMO — a record no one else so far in the history of Maths Olympiads in India has broken. After receiving a BTech degree from IIT Madras, he obtained a PhD from Purdue University, US and is currently a faculty in Mathematics at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.
Explaining how he tackled the challenge that the Olympiad posed, Sandeep says, “The problems (questions) at the Olympiad were of the Pre-Univeristy syllabus. We did not have a very clear idea about them. When I approached Professor Vijayakumar, he asked me to go through the previous years’ papers. I gathered them all and prepared for the test. He trained us the right way. Since then, Maths has been a familiar subject.”
Several other students who participated in the Olympiads are continuing their research in maths-related topics in IT and Computer science. They include Amal Ekbal who after completing BTech from IITM, a PhD from Stanford University, US is now working in a multinational research company; K Subrahmanyam is now in IIT Hyderabad, Sujith Vijay who after getting a PhD from Rutgers University, US, is now in the maths dept of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Thiruvananthapuram, Krishnaram, after completing BTech, took a PhD from Stanford and is now working as a research consultant abroad, Aditya Aravind, who secured the first rank at RMO-2004, after doing a BTech from IIT-M is currently a doctoral student of Physics at Texas University, US.
What is a Mathematics Olympiad?
The Mathematics Olympiad is a talent search programme of international significance for students who have not entered a university. Students of Class XI/XII and a few exceptionally talented students of Class X are eligible to appear. There is no prescribed syllabus. Usually, questions are from Algebra, Geometry, Number Theory and Combinatorics. The questions are highly sophisticated, and measures the student’s capacity for original and critical thinking. The Regional Maths Olympiad is held across different centres in a State. For example, this year in Kerala, RMO will be held in 15 centres. Likewise, the RMO will be held in different states. About 20 students, winners of RMO will be selected for the Indian National Mathematical Olympiad to be held in February 2015 at Cochin University Campus. Thirty toppers of INMO will be invited for a training camp to select an Indian team for the International Mathematical Olympiad-2015 to be held in Thailand this year. Questions are of the Pre-University level prepared by experts from across the globe. Care is taken to not repeat the questions from the past 25 years’ question papers.