A gold medal math winner

Courtesy photo: Brookings High School senior Serena An, class of 2021 and admitting to having “an affinity for math,” works on problems at home. Following graduation she will spend an academic year in South Korea before attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

BHS senior achieves long-held dream

BROOKINGS – Serena An, 18, graduating from Brookings High School in a few days, admits to having “an affinity for math.” 

And she’s demonstrated that well, competing and winning awards every year since she was a seventh-grader, which is when she moved with her family to Brookings.

She got her start as a state Mathcounts champion in both seventh and eighth grades. Her BHS geometry/AP calculus instructor, Pamela Zubke, noted that An “has accomplished phenomenal things in mathematics” and cited more than a dozen of those accomplishments.

A pair of them came during her senior year. In the MAA (Mathematical Association of America) American Mathematical Competition she received a Certificate of Excellence and $1,000 cash prize as a top-five scorer.

Add to that the acme at this point in her still young career in her chosen field: eighth place and a gold medal in the 2021 European Girls’ Math Olympiad (EGMO) in April.

The two-day event, the 10th of its kind, was scheduled to be held in the country of Georgia, but like so many events worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to go all virtual.

Fifty-five teams, of four girls each, from countries around the world took part in the competition. A total of 27 girls won gold medals, including Serena and her three teammates; the USA team finished in second place, with a Russian Federation team taking first.       

Explaining the scoring system, An noted that “gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded, but more than one person earns each medal based on scores attained above a certain level.”

The contestants work on a total of six mathematical-proof problems; each problem is worth seven points, with a total of 42 points possible. Twenty-seven points earn a gold; all the girls on the USA team scored in the high 30s.

Well-prepared for competition

An brought to EGMO a solid background in math, earned via her BHS classes. She took calculus and statistics in her freshman and sophomore school years; plus as a junior she went to South Dakota State University and took an advanced calculus class in person before the pandemic struck.

An has a weighted GPA of 4.23. She said that was at the last time she checked, adding, “It might have dropped since then, since I couldn’t take any APs (advanced placements) this year, because I was going to school straight online. Some APs are just not offered online.”

In addition to math, languages play a big role in An’s studies. She speaks Chinese at home, with her mother, Ping Ye; her father, Wenfeng An; and her sister, Vanessa, who’s a freshman at BHS.

“I did Spanish for three years,” An said. She added that she couldn’t study it her senior year, “because it wasn’t an online option.” She’s studying Latin this year, also online, but doesn’t feel she is suited for it.

Outside the BHS setting, Serena is active in the mathematical community. 

She helps others solve problems on the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) website. On her AoPS blog, she shares her math learning and competition experiences. 

Additionally, she is a co-founder of the Brookings Math Circle; it offers to local students free sessions dedicated to problem solving and exploration of higher-level mathematics.

Next South Korea, then MIT

Following graduation from BHS, An will embark on a well-planned path toward her educational objectives, beginning with a year of study abroad before attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge) in 2022, majoring in mathematics.

“I don’t know too much about the branches of higher math yet,” she said. “But maybe one thing that might be interesting to me is abstract algebra, like the algebra was taught in high school, but sort of different and building off of that.”

However, before MIT, An is “taking a gap year” for a study abroad program in South Korea for nine months, from September 2021 to May 2022.

She’ll be participating in the National Security Language Initiative For Youth (NSLI-Y). Its website states: “The U.S. Department of State’s NSLI-Y is part of a U.S. government initiative to foster international cooperation by ensuring that Americans have the necessary linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to effectively communicate globally. NSLI-Y provides overseas critical language study opportunities to American youth through merit-based scholarships to spark a lifetime interest in critical foreign languages and cultures.”

“Recently I started learning Korean,” she explained, noting that she will have to immerse herself completely in another nation’s culture and customs. “I’m definitely not doing math all day.” She is finding some leisure time for biking, going on walks, and movies.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected]

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