September 19, 2007
Sherry Gong, 18, stands out in a number of ways. Of the six members of the U.S. International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) team, she was the only female. And, among the 536 participants in this year's IMO, held in July in Hanoi, Vietnam, she finished in a tie for seventh place, earning a gold medal and the distinction of being one of the best young mathematicians in the world.
Top that off with a tie for first place in the China Mathematical Olympiad for Girls, which took place in August, and you've got a young woman whose mathematical talent is creating quite a stir as she makes the transition from high school to college.
"I like math because it is beautiful," Gong says. "There are parts of it that are dainty and elegant, like a quick solution. There are also parts in which you create something incredibly powerful, and then you get to use it."
Gong's list of accomplishments in mathematics and physics competitions is enviable. Besides this year's gold medal, Gong earned a silver medal in the 2005 International Mathematical Olympiad in Mexico and in the 2006 International Physics Olympiad in Singapore. She has also excelled in geography bees, placing 12th nationally in 2002.
To Gong, these competitions seem a dream. "They are places where someone might be with peers who are a lot like themselves—peers who share his or her interests, fears, and hopes," Gong says. "When I was in eighth grade . . . a mathematical olympiad program changed my entire [perspective] on life. It opened my eyes to another way of life."
Born on Long Island, N.Y., Gong has lived in both Canada and Puerto Rico. She completed her high school education at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and has now just started classes at Harvard University.
Between school and all her mathematical endeavors, Gong doesn't have a great deal of time to relax. "I mostly chat with friends, go out for a walk . . . or do math or physics," Gong says. Her mother, Liangqing Li, notes that her daughter is always willing to help her classmates with physics and math questions. And, like lots of other kids, she enjoys Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
Some people say that it's Gong's desire to be always surrounded by mathematics that makes her so successful. "Sherry loves math and is constantly curious to learn more, and this is very important to her success," Melanie Matchett Wood says. A graduate student at Princeton University, Wood was one of Gong's coaches at this year's China Girls Math Olympiad.
Steve Dunbar, MAA's Director of Competitions, has seen Gong in action at the IMO. "The word I would use is 'consistency,'" Dunbar says. "She was always consistent. Some of the other top students could have up days and down days, but I could always expect Sherry to perform at the top level consistently. That shows a lot of internal discipline."
Her mathematical influences include not only her parents, both accomplished mathematicians, but also some very familiar names. "Archimedes was way ahead of his time and provided foundations for many areas," Gong says. Her list also includes Leonhard Euler, "because he did great things in so many subjects," along with Carl Friedrich Gauss and Augustin-Louis Cauchy.
When it comes to being a successful woman in mathematical competitions, Gong will tell you that it isn't much of an issue. "One notices, of course, when one is the only girl, but gender isn't an issue that comes up too often, except for an argument once in a while over which is the proper way to phrase Hall's Marriage Lemma," Gong jokes. Gong does occasionally hear disparaging remarks, but that just drives her to work harder.
Before she became a coach, Wood was the first girl to earn a spot on a U.S. team to the IMO, so she knows what Gong is going through. "Being a woman doing math competitions does bring along extra pressure," Wood says, "but everyone handles that pressure in their own way."
"One problem is that there are so few women doing math competitions at a very high level that women as a whole are often judged based on a few examples, which can put a lot of pressure on those 'examples.,'" Wood adds. "Of course, representing the U.S. on an international level puts a lot of pressure on anyone, so sometimes the pressure from being a woman gets lost in the mix."—R. Miller