Equal to the Task

Aayush Karan ’19 solved a 30-year old problem in the mathematical field of knot theory and was named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition.

Last year, Aayush Karan ’19 had spent the better part of five months attempting to solve a mathematical problem in the field of knot theory when the unexpected happened—someone else solved the problem first. “A mathematician was working concurrently on the same problem but I didn’t know about it,” said Karan. “I was surprised that it happened, but I guess it’s very common in research.” Karan’s mentor, a professor at MIT, broke the bad news via email. “He sent me a link to the published paper with a sad face emoji,” said Karan.

Karan had been working under the PRIMES-USA (Program for Research In Mathematics, Engineering, and Science) program, in which high school juniors are mentored by MIT researchers on unsolved problems in mathematics. It didn’t take long for Karan to dust himself off and start tackling a different problem proposed by his mentor, also in the field of knot theory, which had been unsolved for 30 years.

“When you first see a problem, you just start thinking, ‘Can I do this?’ And there’s no way to tell; there’s never a guarantee that you’ll be able to solve it,” he said. But not only did Karan solve it, he submitted it to the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition, and his hard work paid off. He was one of 40 high school seniors—and the only one from Wisconsin—out of 1,964 applicants to be named a Regeneron finalist. In March he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he met with the other finalists and notable scientists, and presented his work to the public.

For Karan, who is also an accomplished pianist and headed to Harvard University in the fall, solving the problem was a surreal experience. “There was always this feeling of, did I really, actually solve it? It’s very hard to describe, but it was a mixture of satisfaction, relief, and just happiness. It was really fun.”

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