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Knowing the Angles: Jimmy Chen and the Multidimensional Mathematician
Posted 06/19/2020 02:29PM

Among the multitude of concepts that describe the beauty and complexities of mathematics, one equation has captivated Jimmy Chen the most:

e + 1 = 0

For most people, that seven symbol collocation seems incomprehensible or perplexing. Mathematicians around the globe, however, have been engrossed by the equation, known as Euler's identity, as it encapsulates the most fundamental ideas of the discipline.

Jimmy first stumbled upon the equation when he was in middle school, just when his new-found interest in the discipline had been burgeoning. Of course, he did not understand then what every symbol represented and how it linked to one another. But instead of becoming more confused, Jimmy saw the equation as the key to advancing his philosophy of mathematics.

Since arriving at Keystone Academy in 2014, Jimmy's interest in mathematics has blossomed to the point that he considers it as the "love of my life" that allows him to "move freely between the material and abstract worlds."

The Charm of Math

Love can be felt, but Jimmy can make you see it—on a line graph. Upon discovering a software where he could manipulate logarithmic trajectories by adjusting functions, Jimmy worked on formulas to produce linear visuals as simple as a figure of the heart. He has also tried to replicate the Chinese character 金 (jīn) or make other elaborate curves. One of these resembles a leaf.

Jimmy has tried to interpret the world and its many phenomena using mathematics. His interest in the subject sprouted during his primary school years, and he cultivated it by reading more books. He has since gone deep into the discipline, figuring out the numerical equivalents of occurrences in nature. For example, he researched the mechanisms of fireworks using differential equations. He also looked into the process of plant growth through fractal geometry and detailed his findings in a 4,000-word Extended Essay (EE) for his IB Diploma Programme at Keystone.

For Jimmy, everything in the world is governed by logical principles and mathematical perspectives. And so, his good buddy Tom He has always heard him say, "This does not make sense" because "he will keep asking the rationality and existence of something." Around campus, Tom usually sees his friend always holding his laptop and trying out math software or figuring out formulas.

Mathematics teacher and Director of Residential Life Amanda Shen knows exactly how Jimmy loves math, even saying that it permeates his bones profoundly. She has known Jimmy since he arrived at Keystone as a seventh-grade student in 2014. At a demo class, she remembers being surprised by the small and timid boy who hid colossal brainpower. The then-14-year-old was the fastest in the class to answer a problem that other students found so ridiculous—he even came up with another way of solving it, impressing Ms. Shen.

Jimmy has become a mathematics powerhouse at Keystone since then. He co-founded the Keystone Math Club KAP in 2017 and represented the school in various competitions in China and abroad. This included the ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) China Math Tournament, where he received a distinction in Discrete Math for reaching its Top 10-25%, and the US-based Math League where he was given an honor roll of distinction certificate for getting into the Top 8% of contestants worldwide. He participated in more contests in the following year, such as the AMC (American Mathematics Competitions) 10 and the American Invitational Mathematics Exam.

In his eleventh-grade year, Jimmy teamed up with Ms. Shen to launch the Keystone Mathematics Competition Tutoring Center KAP (Keystone Activities Program) where they prepped students from Grades 6 to 8 for regional and international math tournaments. He has encouraged the recruits by showing them Euler's identity, the very same equation that has mesmerized him for years.

The fun of being in such a club, he said, is that it connects curious young minds and builds a community that "helps promote mathematical thinking in the school range."

"In many cases, we pursue methods that are vastly different, but we can all eventually land on the same conclusion. All of us have colorful personalities, just like the variety in our mathematical thinking, but we all fall for the charm of math," he added.

Ms. Shen, now Jimmy's advisor in Grade 12, feels glad that he continued coaching club members despite the demanding schedule in the IB Diploma Programme, where he took Higher Level (HL) Mathematics, Physics, and English B courses, and Standard Level (SL) Computer Science, Economics, and Chinese Language and Literature courses.

His biggest project as of yet, the Extended Essay on fractal geometry mentioned above, is one of its kind in his cohort. His Mathematics HL teacher Dr. Cos Fi sees the monograph as "nuanced [and] generative" and "reinforced Jimmy's interest in the foundations in mathematics."

Cracking the Code

Jimmy has acknowledged that he has spent so much of his academic time in math that he branched out into the realm of computer science and programming so he could turn his ideas into reality and "make something that works." After learning the intricacies of a spreadsheet program, Jimmy explored other software and apps and tested their functions. He also learned programming languages.

On the sidelines of the math competitions he joined between 2018 and 2019, Jimmy created an online repository of math learning resources that he had used in his own exploration. The aptly-named website, A Wiki about Math, was his Personal Project and it has since become a go-to for many other Keystone students who are learning the subject.

Later on, in the IB Computer Science course, Jimmy used his Internal Assessment (IA) as an opportunity to build a program that he had wanted to create for a long time. Here, he tried to simulate a physics principle about how pressure, temperature, and other environmental factors affect gas molecules. The IA required a client with whom the student could present their project. Jimmy chose his Physics teacher Baldeep Sawhney.

"He didn't really ask for it," Jimmy said. "But I built it anyways and showed the program to him."

It seemed to Jimmy that the teacher "looked surprised and thought it was a pleasing simulation." But Mr. Sawhney saw more than that.

"It was just out of this world," Mr. Sawhey exclaimed. "It was fabulous! In my past ten years of IB experience, there have been very few students who have done significant and outstanding Internal Assessment work. And he is one of them."

Mr. Sawhney believes that Jimmy's choice of courses in the Diploma Programme is an "impressive combination." In the Physics class, Mr. Sawhney would ask Jimmy to help explain a difficult concept in Chinese so that other students would understand it quicker.

Even other experts have praised Jimmy for his undeniable intelligence. In the spring of 2019, he was inducted into the elite crop of high schoolers globally to join the Pioneer Academics research program, which allowed him to become a mentee of Professor Carl Yerger of Davidson College. For more than four months, Jimmy worked with the expert for his academic paper about flow networks in the field of graph theory. The professor marked Jimmy's “level of curiosity, aptitude, and industriousness as ‘excellent,’” and that “he would be in the top 10% in any top college.”

“[Jimmy] was able to read and understand an upper undergraduate/early graduate-level textbook in theoretical computer science and explain concepts related to network flows,” Professor Yerger wrote.

“Jimmy has so much stored potential,” Mr. Sawhney said, “And right now, he unleashes it to the things that matter to him. If he wants, he can excel in other fields. But in the end, he will probably end up doing something good for humanity because he has that brilliant mind.”

The Big Band

Jimmy has a distinct way of talking to people, and his Economics teacher Dorothy Mubweka has seen it so well: whenever he asks questions, he will approach people with clasped hands, or whenever he thinks, he will touch his chin.

“You can easily underestimate that boy because he doesn’t talk that much,” she said, “But once you start interacting with him, you will appreciate his intellect, composure, maturity, and confidence.”

Ms. Mubweka first met Jimmy in 2016 but worked with him extensively in the following year as she took on the role of his Personal Project Coordinator. She immediately noticed how talented Jimmy was, especially when he presented his idea of the math resource website project. She confirmed her first impressions of him when he finally became her student in Economics two years later, where he brought diverse thinking and commanded a certain level of respect among his peers.

Jimmy’s classmates, as Ms. Mubweka observed, would wait for his comments during discussions or group decisions. And so, she enjoyed watching the class “shooting ideas from one corner to another” in the debates until somebody would see the light that led to the “aha moment.”

“And when Jimmy asks a question, it will bring in a debate because his query is something that people have probably not thought about,” Ms. Mubweka added, “And that’s why I keep on saying that he is very reflective—someone who thinks about the things that we take for granted.”

One more side of Jimmy that particularly surprised Ms. Mubweka, and many other people in the Keystone community as well, is his musical talent. She could not believe her eyes when she saw him performing in a student orchestra during one school event.

“Jimmy, you play the drum?” she remembered asking him in awe and disbelief.

Jimmy has been playing the snare drum since he was seven, when he joined his previous school’s orchestra out of curiosity. He was further ensnared in music as he discovered the other instruments of the percussion section and their characteristics.

In over a decade of being a musician, Jimmy has become an all-rounder who can play as many as six roles in the orchestra. He can expertly handle the snare and bass drums, the drum set, the glockenspiel, the marimba, the timpani, and the xylophone. He can also play the piano. However, he prefers being a percussionist, or what he says is “the least noticed member of the orchestra.”

“The percussionist is often required to control not just one instrument, but a group of pieces in a performance,” he wrote in one essay. “It's a fascinating fusion of singularity and collectivity. Whereas a percussion sound stands thinly on its own, it is a significant core element to support and enrich the whole musical narrative. In life, any individual could actually play a positive role in a community. Even if I don't receive individual attention, I'm willing to offer support to my community.”

Beyond the stage, there’s another place where Jimmy provides his assistance to others. He joined Keystone’s table tennis team in 2016, continuing the hobby that he had learned from a professional coach four years earlier. As a core member and most experienced player of the Keystone team, Jimmy has helped his coaches to train younger members while improving his own physique and mental strength.

Jimmy has designed training plans based on the agility and coordination of junior paddlers, and even tried to solve confusion and communication issues between players. For him, giving feedback and acknowledging progress empowers the members and encourages the entire team to move forward.

Outside Keystone, Jimmy has made use of his skills to help other people. He and his roommate for three years, Ricky Li, partnered with a public charity organization for a project where they created short introductory videos on astronomy for schools in the far-flung areas of Inner Mongolia. It was his first foray into an audiovisual project.

They initially planned to produce a series, showing one video per month. The pair even endeavored to visualize and re-enact scientific concepts to make the videos fun and interactive, but they spent more time recording and editing footage. In the end, they completed three videos in two years. In the process, however, Jimmy said he learned new technical skills such as video editing and shooting.

Ricky said they pieced the video elements together after school and during weekends. He acknowledged Jimmy’s intent to present scientific ideas vividly through animation, even though it took a lot of their effort.

“I remember Jimmy spending one evening just to do this,” Ricky added, “And even during the tense university application period, he was willing to take his precious time to do the best for our common things. He hasn’t lost his heart for one day. For that, I truly admire him.”

The ‘Living Applicant’

Jimmy visited Stonehenge in the summer of 2019, and just like other tourists, he battled to take the most memorable photo of the landmark. But the stones were blocked by the crowds at every possible vantage point, and clouds concealed the sun, rendering his every snapshot dull and uninspired.

Upon realizing that his efforts were pointless, Jimmy began reflecting on his notion that “photography is about observing the world” through the “ways of knowing,” a concept taught in the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) subject in the IB Diploma Programme. It became a lens from which he could see the prehistoric monument beyond time and perception—and the horde of onlookers.

He wrote about his musings extensively in his personal statement for his college application. That occasion in Stonehenge, he said in the essay, provided him with a real-life connection to TOK, and added that “the day made me realize that there is more in photography than sight, and more in TOK than theories.”

Jimmy briefly talked about this experience during the Class of 2020 Graduate Talk, a campus event where he and five other graduating students discussed academic journeys at Keystone, and their advice on applying for colleges abroad. He has been admitted into his “dream school,” Harvey Mudd College, a top science and engineering college in California, where he will major in Mathematics.

“In my personal statement, I highlighted the three divergent ways of thinking. Some may see it as creative thinking, but I will just call it ‘daydreaming,’” Jimmy joked. “When you compose your personal statement, you will want to dig into what makes you stand out. This may be your quirks or features and these are what makes you a ‘living applicant’ in the eyes of the school admission staff.”

For Amanda Yan, one of Keystone’s Directors of the Office of College Counseling, Jimmy’s experience in one of the world’s most visited prehistoric sites captured his personal views and his thought process beautifully. It also showed, for her, that Jimmy is not a one-dimensional student who excels only in academics.

Jimmy’s high school teachers said they are excited to see how he will fare in college. Mr. Sawhney already knows that his student is internationally-minded, a quality much needed right now.

“I have never told Jimmy personally that he is my 7 (the highest score) in IB Physics,” Mr. Sawhney added. “But I just want to tell you that you are my 7, not only in academics, but also in inspiration, hard work, resilience, humble nature, compassion towards the subjects, and in the desire to wanting to do something big.”

“My Jimmy,” Ms. Dorothy Mubweka gushed, “I know that I will read more about you, say in ten years. I don’t know where I will be then, but I know that you will do wonders. And why do I say that? Because of your character of just wanting to discover things.”

But for Jimmy, he prefers not to overthink what will happen in the future and instead to try to live in the present and “do the best choices that I can for the moment.” It was similar advice he shared with his younger peers during the Graduate Talk.

“Think of the time you spend in the DP and just think that they will all go by in a flash. And think about yourself too. What got me through these years are the little moments of triumph and relaxation, say the breaks that you’ve just had after a full day of doing math. Cherish these moments because they will go by so quickly,” Jimmy said.

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