Having her number retired

In a few weeks, senior Melanie Wood will have her jersey retired.

The jersey-retiring ceremony will not be in Cameron Indoor Stadium, though, but rather, the Physics Building, and Wood will be honored for something other than basketball.

Out of the thousands that competed last December in the 63rd Lowell Putnam Competition, arguably the most prestigious math competition worldwide, Wood, an A.B. Duke scholar, placed among the top five scorers. As a result, officials from the Mathematical Association of America, the organization that administers the annual Putnam Competition, named Wood a Fellow, making her the first American woman and only the second woman in the world to accomplish such a feat.

"Wood's performance on the Putnam is extremely rare; it is incredibly difficult to score so high," said Dr. David Kraines, associate professor of math.

The six-hour test contains 12 questions, each worth 10 points. Out of the 120 possible points, the median score is usually 2 or 3. While competition officials never release the top five scores, Wood knows that she and the other four Fellows scored somewhere between 96-116.

"Most of the other Fellows are dear friends of mine. We've done so many competitions together, and have all come out in so many different orders that who came out first here just isn't important!" Wood said.

But Wood said competition is "not the driving force behind my existence, or even my math career."

That might make more sense in light of what has gone into her math career. Unlike other Duke students who waited anxiously for acceptance letters during their senior year of high school, Wood was actually recruited by prestigious math departments nationwide. "Let's just say her reputation preceded her," said Kraines, who recruited Wood. "Since her freshman year she's taken graduate level classes, and if anything, she's embarrassed the graduate students in them."

Although her father was a mathematician, Wood, who hails from Indianapolis, said she has still had to do some serious behind-the-scenes work to earn each accolade. For example, she spent every high school summer in Nebraska working with a math coach.

"You take a four-hour test, four times a week--it's exhausting," she said. "You have classes that teach different ways of thinking about math, but most competitive math students in high school do it."

It seems the practice has paid off.

By her freshman year, Wood was featured in a six-page article in Discover Magazine titled "The Girl Who Loved Math." She has already published one of her research papers, completed under the guidance of Professor of Math Richard Hain, and has submitted another one for publication. Her research focuses on abstract pure mathematics. "[Her] work concerns the symmetries of the set of algebraic numbers, which form a vast, complicated and mysterious object called the absolute Galois group," Hain explained.

In addition to her math achievements, Wood is a philosophy minor who takes graduate classes in economics and psycho-linguistics, and has directed and produced plays while at Duke.

Wood has already been awarded a one-year scholarship to study in Cambridge, England, and has received acceptances from the top universities to which she applied. Her advisers think she may teach after school.

"I see her doing top research in mathematics in five years, and becoming a professor at a major university in 10 years," Kraines said.

For now, Wood can sit back and wait until her jersey is retired next to the others already hanging in the Physics Building. Like other retired jerseys, though, Wood's will need a number.

"My number is two because it is the simplest number that still contains plenty of structure to be studied, at least in a generous interpretation of what 'the number two' refers to," she explained.

This girl clearly knows her math.


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