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Evan O'Dorney, Spelling Champ and Math Whiz

The similarities between a spelling bee and a mathematics competition are few.  But whatever one may need to be successful at either, Evan O’Dorney has it in no short supply.

After correctly spelling “serrefine” and winning the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee, O’Dorney told anyone within earshot that mathematics is his true passion.  He made everyone believers after tying for the top score on this year’s USA Mathematical Olympiad test and winning the Clay Olympiad Scholar Award for the most creative solution.

“The spelling bee win was very satisfying because it was my last year and I had spent two years studying intensely,” O’Dorney says. “But the USAMO win is much more exciting.”

O’Dorney spent last summer at the American Mathematics Competition’s Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program (MOSP) preparing for this year’s tests. He’ll return to MOSP this year, where he hopes to be practicing for a trip to Madrid for the International Mathematical Olympiad.  O’Dorney and ten others will take the IMO team selection test [TST] in Washington, D.C., on June 7-8 while the 12 USAMO winners are in town for the USAMO awards ceremony on June 9.

“He was in the Honorable Mention group last year as an 8th grader, and made an impression on the rest of the camp,” MAA Director of Competitions Steve Dunbar says. “Now he's the top scorer on the USAMO, so the 2007 [MOSP] must have been great preparation.”

Evan’s mother, Jennifer O’Dorney, realized how special Evan was when he was young, and she thinks that homeschooling has allowed his mind to develop to its potential. “Evan was born with an exceptional mind,” she says. “His giftedness was apparent at seven-months when he tried to say our cat’s name, ‘Malcolm.’”

She adds, “Homeschooling has afforded Evan time to develop that giftedness, absorbing all the math his mentors and I could teach him, exploring and reading about his areas of interest in depth, and creating … always creating.”

And absorb math he has. Already taking college math courses at the University of California, Berkeley and planning to major in mathematics when the time comes, O’Dorney hopes to become a professor and do research.

“Math is neat: A statement is either true or false,” O’Dorney says. “In science, any theory can be overturned by experiment because science is founded on experiment. But in math, there are theorems that can never be overturned because they have been proved with logic.”

Evan’s mathematical support group begins with his parents. His father has an engineering and computer science background and loves to talk math with him, while his mother serves as his go-to person for almost anything at all.

“To encourage his love of math, I provide a listening ear and encouraging words,” his mother says. “Evan loves to talk through problems with me, and I must always be actively listening as he often poses mathematical questions while explaining his solutions step-by-step.”

She adds, “I also inject lots of humor.”

Ken Perano of Sandia National Laboratories has been O’Dorney’s mentor in advanced math and computer programming for the past five years.  The Berkeley Math Circle and its founder Zvezdelina Stankova have encouraged O’Dorney to make up problems for the circle’s monthly contests and also help him select math courses to take at Berkeley. O’Dorney first took the AMC tests through the Berkeley Math Circle. Evan’s mother also credits his professors at Berkeley for their “caring and professional mentorship” of her son. 

Besides math, O’Dorney likes computer programming, juggling, and reading the dictionary.  He also enjoys playing the piano, and says he has a mind for music.  “I really enjoy improvising on the piano and often compose music on staff paper,” O’Dorney says. “Music constantly streams through my head, though most of it never makes it out.”

His mother can tell stories about Evan learning sums at age 2 or multiplication at age 3, but she thinks that his drive and work ethic set him apart. “Math is Evan's passion,” she says. “Evan was truly pleased to win the USAMO.”

“The time he has spent reading, absorbing, thinking about, and solving math problems coupled with expert mentoring and MOSP 2007 instruction have prepared him to tackle the [IMO team selection test],” she says. “Whether he makes the IMO team or not, the MOSP 2008 experience will expand his knowledge and inspire him in his creative problem solving.”

According to Mom, “There was never, nor will there ever be, a dull moment spent with Evan O'Dorney.”—R. Miller

News Date: 
Wednesday, June 4, 2008