Volume 96, No.1, January-February 2010

Go Figure
by Bridget Booher

Where Are They Now? Duke's Putnam Scholars

Whiz kid: Her senior year, Melanie Wood became the first American-born woman to be named a Putnam Fellow.
Whiz kid: Her senior year, Melanie Wood became the first American-born woman to be named a Putnam Fellow.
Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

Every year, the five highest-scoring participants in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition are named Putnam Fellows. To date, twenty-five Duke students have placed in the top twenty-five or higher, but only five of those have achieved Putnam Fellow status. Here's a look at what those fellows have gone on to do since graduating. The date next to the names indicates the year each was designated a Putnam Fellow.

Jeff VanderKam (1992) VanderKam '94 graduated summa cum laude from Duke and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He was the first Putnam Fellow at Duke and the first to have his Duke math shirt, with the number 4/3, "retired." VanderKam now does research for the Center for Communications Research, a think tank in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and their three children.  

Craig Gentry (1993) Gentry '95 graduated magna cum laude from Duke and earned his law degree from Harvard University. After working briefly in intellectual-property law, he decided to pursue a career that would utilize his math skills, landing a job doing cryptography research for NTT DoCoMo in its Silicon Valley Lab. After working there for five years, he returned to school to obtain his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University. He currently works for IBM. Recently, he devised an algorithm for "fully homomorphic encryption," which allows users to delegate processing of encrypted data without giving away access to the data—that is, while maintaining privacy. Forbes magazine covered the breakthrough in its July 13, 2009, issue ("IBM's Blindfolded Calculator").

Nathan Curtis (1998) Despite his strong math chops, Curtis '02 majored in music at Duke, minored in math, and played in the Duke Wind Symphony and Duke Jazz Ensemble. He earned a master of art degree in music composition from Tufts University in 2005. He is a composer and conductor living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and plays the bass trombone, piano, flute, and clarinet. He is the founder of Tortoiseshell Music, an e-commerce site through which he sells his original sheet music and recordings.

Kevin Lacker (1998, 2001) Duke's only two-time Putnam Fellow, Lacker '02 majored in math and computer science. He earned a master of science degree in computational biology from the University of California at Berkeley. Since 2005, he has been a developer on the search-quality team at Google, where he works on improving the information-retrieval algorithms for Google search results. He holds a patent on a technique for analyzing websites and has published articles on other aspects of his work in the Journal of Machine Learning Research.

Melanie Wood (2002) By the time she graduated, Wood '03 had racked up a slew of national honors that included the Morgan Prize for outstanding research in math by an undergraduate in the U.S. or Canada, the Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize as the top U.S. undergraduate woman in mathematics, and the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize (for outstanding performance by a female contestant) twice. Wood accepted the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, earning a certificate of advanced study in mathematics with distinction from the University of Cambridge in 2004. In 2007, she coached the first U.S.A. Girls Math Olympiad Team and successfully applied for grants to cover the $87,000 budget to train two teams of U.S. high-school girls to compete in the China Girls Math Olympiad. She earned her Ph.D. from Princeton in 2009, specializing in algebraic number theory and algebraic geometry. This past fall, she joined the Stanford University faculty as a Szegö Assistant Professor of mathematics. She is also a Five-Year Fellow of the American Institute of Mathematics.