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Hickman senior wins $20,000 at national math and science competition

Monday, December 8, 2008 | 6:19 p.m. CST; updated 10:56 p.m. CST, Monday, December 8, 2008

COLUMBIA — Failures rarely win, but what Ashok Cutkosky first thought was a failure ended up winning a $20,000 prize from the Siemens Foundation.

The Hickman High School senior and mathlete set out to prove that certain restrictions in the second dimension of mathematical graphs applied to graphs in the third and higher dimensions. His theory proved wrong, but this failure was a new math discovery.

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He defended his finding over the weekend in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology at New York University. Winners were announced Monday, and Cutkosky will take home a $20,000 scholarship.

"I didn't have much of a reaction," he said, adding that he knew that he would walk away with at least $10,000, the minimum prize given out to the participants. "I was happy and pretty calm."

Cutkosky is the second student from Missouri to compete at this national competition since the competition began in 1998 and is the sixth ever to reach the regional competition that was held at the University of Notre Dame.

His discovery may seem complicated but can be applied to making natural resources easier to retrieve.

And although Cutkosky thought he failed when he didn't prove his initial task, his adviser, Oklahoma State University math professor Chris Francisco, knew otherwise.

"He said, 'You've gotten something!'" Cutkosky said, recalling Francisco's reaction.

Francisco has known Cutkosky since 2004 when he worked with Cutkosky's parents at MU's math department during Francisco's post-doctoral work. Francisco gave a guest lecture at MU in the spring and reconnected with Cutkosky.

Research in dimensions higher than two is uncommon, Francisco said, noting that ordinarily, scholars focus their studies on two dimensions. Also, this topic (which was an extension of Francisco's own work and one of several ideas that he suggested to 18-year-old Cutkosky) is usually reserved for graduate students and usually only after Francisco has seen their work.

Cutkosky, who Francisco describes as remarkable and brilliant, began his research by writing computer codes to help him guess formulas. He then attempted to prove that those formulas would work in the third dimension.

"(The results) were surprising," he said. "I didn't know I had found something."

Cutkosky's discovery exceeded Francisco's expectations.

"I didn't think he could prove the theorems," Francisco said. "Not that he couldn't, but the goal was that he could work on it for a while, write the program for the (formulas) and then look at the (formulas)."

Cutkosky, who takes math and physics classes at MU, conducted his research during the summer, communicating with Francisco via e-mail (where sometimes the e-mails would reach five or six a day), and produced the results before Labor Day that he would later take to the regional competition.

His project, titled "Associated Primes of the Square of the Alexander Dual of Hypergraphs," beat four others to take first place in the individual category at the regional competition, winning a $3,000 scholarship and qualifying him for the national competition in New York where he competed against five others for the grand prize of $100,000. Wen Chyan of Denton, Texas, won the individual grand prize, and North Carolina high-schoolers Andrew Guo and Sajith Wickramasekera won the team grand prize.

The Siemens Competition wasn't Cutkosky's first competition. Since 2005, he has placed at the Great Plains Math League, won the silver medal at the USA Math Talent Search, been a member on a Science Olympiad team that won the regional Science Olympiad and placed fourth at the state level. This year, he was a member of Hickman's Academic Team (Quiz Bowl) that placed second in the Missouri Fall Academic Tournament and qualified for the National Academic Quiz Tournaments High School National Championship and the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence National Scholastics Championship.

So where does a piano-playing kid who won $23,000 by working on a graduate school level math problem, who sings in the school choir (when his schedule permits, of course) and performs card magic on the side go next? Harvard University. Or Stanford University. Or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wherever Cutkosky goes next, he wants to study math or physics with aspirations of becoming a professor. Francisco said that Cutkosky will be "great in whatever he decides to do. He's pretty well-rounded academically." 

To see Cutkosky's presentation at New York University, click here

To see video of when the winners were announced, click here.  Cutkosky's name is announced around the 20 minute mark.


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Sumi Seo December 9, 2008 | 7:04 p.m.
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