"I just think that math is kind of beautiful": A profile of Alex Zhai
Published: Thursday, May 29, 2008 - 1:47am
Note: In the days leading up to graduation, we are profiling a number of seniors whose interests and accomplishments exemplify the diverse talents that make up the Class of 2008. These students and their classmates are ready to make an impact that extends far beyond Uni High. For the first portrait in this series, see Maritza Mestre's profile of Eunice How. See also Laura Dripps' profile of Kumars Salehi, Sindha Agha's portrait of Erin Hayes, and Elaine Gu's profile of Ethan Berl.
Senior Alex Zhai is on course for his third straight appearance in the International Math Olympiad. Gargoyle photo by Sindha Agha (click to enlarge)
ASK ALEX ZHAI how he wants to affect the world in the coming years, and you’ll be surprised.
“I’m not really a person who’s out to change the world,” said Zhai. “I just don’t think I’m ready to decide how I’m going to do that yet.”
And yet this Uni High senior has definitely made a good head start. He has represented the United States twice in the International Math Olympiad and is on track to do it again for the third straight year.
His accomplishments, however, do not lie in math alone. He recently made the U.S. Physics Team and returned Wednesday from 10 days at the team training camp at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Despite his overall success and genius in both these fields, he isn’t your typical math whiz. Yes, you can see him in MathCounts T-shirts often enough, but ask him to talk about his accomplishments, and he lays them out for you in an extremely laid-back manner.
But how did Zhai’s story begin? How did he become so involved with math when many of us bolt away at the sight of a math textbook?
In fact, besides learning little bits of math from his parents, who are both in computer science, he never really liked math until the sixth grade when he discovered MathCounts.
“I liked that challenge,” said Zhai. “That was the first time that I studied math on my own outside of the classroom.”
These efforts paid off early. As a subfreshman Zhai was on the MathCounts Illinois team that won the national championship in May 2004. He appeared in competition on ESPN and went to the White House, where he met and shook hands with President George W. Bush.
In fact, Zhai’s favorite subject in school has never really been math. He admits that math has always been a bit boring in the classroom.
Zhai believes that studying in his free time has been a major contributor to his success, and encourages other Uni students to do the same.
“One thing about Uni is that no one else is really that into learning math outside of class,” said Zhai. “I always thought that people should try to consider doing more stuff outside of class and pursue their academic interests. I feel like a lot of people don’t realize what interesting stuff there is to learn out there.”
Zhai plans to continue his mathematical pursuits next year at Harvard, where he will be joined by some of his fellow U.S. Math Team members. He hopes to major in math but will definitely take time to pursue other interests.
“I really view college as an opportunity to learn whatever I want,” said Zhai.
For Zhai, that means he will hopefully dabble in some humanities, computer science, and physics along with math.
After college, Zhai remains unsure of what he will do, but he knows he will do some type of research to make advances in either science or math that’s related to science.
But despite his success and deep knowledge of math, Zhai is pretty honest about his relationship with the area.
“I don’t feel like I ever push myself very much beyond what I am already interested in, so I think that there will probably be times when I don’t feel like taking too many math classes,” Zhai said of his college plans.
And yet this laid-back manner of Zhai’s is pretty refreshing. There are no regimented daily exercises that he must force himself to do every day. He pushes himself, but in a healthy way. He masters what he studies, and then he moves on. This has allowed him to appreciate math in various ways and to develop a deep understanding of its importance.
“Part of it is that I just think that math is kind of beautiful and things just work together really well, and it’s also kind of powerful in a way,” said Zhai. “It’s an important thing for everyone to have some knowledge about. I just think in the same way people teach English so that we are able to critically analyze literature, math is also a way of thinking.”
And it’s not like math is all that defines Zhai. He has also played chess and been on the Uni chess team throughout his high school career, placing 10th in the state this year on second board.
In fact, Zhai admits that the pressure and stress from chess has helped him deal with and conquer the same feelings during all the qualifying exams he has taken in math and physics.
Surprisingly, though, Zhai has learned to deal with these feelings a few weeks before these exams and contests take place. Therefore by the time an exam or contest comes around, Zhai is ready to tackle it without feeling that nervous.
“A week or two before the competition I’ll be in a competitive mode but on the actual day of the competition what usually happens is I just end up not thinking about other people but mainly thinking about doing the best I can,” he said. “Like basically ‘Do my best,’ which is pretty cliché, but I mean like I just try to focus on the task at hand and not think about comparing scores.”
Zhai has noticed, however, that even here at Uni, people tend to be unmotivated about math.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that math should be about exploring, and I think the majority of people, if you show them some things about math they’ll think that it is pretty cool and you can do something with it,” said Zhai. “I think that to some extent it is important to have that technical skill, but you should spend time exploring it and having fun with it.”