March 28, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 12

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    Math whiz Lopes wins a Churchill

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Churchill Scholarship recipient William Lopes, a fourth-year studying math and physics, will complete “Part III of the Mathematical Tripos,” the rough equivalent of a master’s degree in math at the University of Cambridge. While at Chicago, he completed the invitation-only Honors Analysis, a highly theoretical sequence in math reserved for the most-able students.

    Next September, fourth-year William Lopes will be off to the University of Cambridge as one of just 10 U.S. students to receive a prestigious Churchill Scholarship.

    The scholarship, worth approximately $25,000, pays for one year of graduate study as well as living expenses at Churchill College, Cambridge.

    Lopes, 22, will earn bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics in June. “William is quite simply one of the most brilliant undergraduate mathematics students to attend the University in a number of years,” said Susan Art, Dean of Students in the College, who suggested that Lopes apply for the scholarship. “He has consistently been the top student by far in his mathematics courses.”

    At Cambridge, Lopes will complete “Part III of the Mathematical Tripos,” the rough equivalent of a master’s degree in math. (Parts I and II of the tripos––named for the three-legged stool used in degree cere-monies––are required for an undergraduate degree at Cambridge.) For Lopes, who has never traveled abroad, the scholarship is as much a cultural opportunity as an intellectual one. “To be honest, I really have no idea what to expect,” he said.

    While he enjoyed math in high school, Lopes had not settled on it as a major when he came to Chicago, though it was “a strong possibility,” he said. What clinched his decision was an Honors Analysis sequence taught by Paul Sally, Professor in Mathematics and the College. “It was really challenging,” Lopes said. “It exposed me to so many different areas of math that I hadn’t seen before, that I had no idea even existed.”

    The listing for Honors Analysis states firmly that it is “Invitation only. This highly theoretical sequence in analysis is reserved for the most-able students.” Lopes, quiet and self-effacing, “was not especially notable at first,” said Sally. “You wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd. But at the end of the quarter, when I added up the scores, I realized he had never done anything wrong. He had omitted some things he didn’t know how to do, but he had done nothing wrong.”

    On the final exam, Lopes scored 380 out of a possible 400 points. The next-highest score was 285. “And this was a class of really bright students,” Sally said. “The last time I had a student like that was in 1970.”

    In addition to his coursework in math, Lopes took enough physics classes to satisfy the concentration requirements, and during his first year at Chicago, he worked in a physics lab.

    “I was interested in physics for its ability to explain the physical world,” he wrote in his application for the Churchill scholarship, as well as “the mathematics underlying the physical explanations.” Lopes did well in his coursework, but math remains his true passion: “I think I’m better at math. I have a lot more intuition for it,” he said.

    Lopes also has racked up an impressive amount of teaching experience. During his second and third years, he worked as a teaching assistant for the basic calculus sequence and Studies in Mathematics, and for two summers he was a tutor in the Young Scholars Program, an outreach program for Chicago secondary school students. “That was exciting,” he said. “It’s really rewarding when you can get students to understand a concept––especially if it’s something that, presented the wrong way, could be boring and uninteresting.”

    During the summer of 2000, Lopes was chosen to work on a mathematical research program supported by a National Science Foundation grant. Working closely with Benson Farb, Professor in Mathematics and the College, Lopes discovered how to pursue research without much prior knowledge of the subject.

    “I learned to figure out what parts of the material were critical––certain mathematical themes were repeated throughout the program––and what parts were less important to understand in detail,” he wrote in his scholarship application.

    One frustration for Lopes is that he cannot really tell his parents, or friends who are not math majors, what his academic work involves. “It’s hard to explain a mathematical idea without actually going in and explaining all the details,” he said.

    After his year at Cambridge, Lopes plans to pursue a Ph.D. in math; he has applied to Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but does not currently have a favorite. With his Ph.D. in hand, he might pursue a career in academia, but he is keeping his options open.

    While Lopes is most often found in the library or the computer lab, he likes to lift weights and jog, and he makes time for one particular pop-culture diversion: The Simpsons. “I try to watch it every day,” he said. Also a nationally ranked chess player, Lopes competes in tournaments three or four times a year.

    Lopes said he found time to see the film A Beautiful Mind, the Oscar-winning film about mathematician John Nash. “I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of his life it was, but it was an exciting story,” he said. “You don’t see math on TV or in the movies very much, and when you do, it’s usually a stereotype. It was exciting to see actual mathematical content on screen.”

    Lopes received the Goldwater Scholarship in 2000 and currently serves as a Student Marshal. He was named to the Dean’s List in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

    Established in 1963, the Churchill Scholarship was created to send talented American students pursuing advanced degrees in science and technology to Churchill College, which is the national memorial to Sir Winston Churchill and houses his archives. Lopes is the 10th Chicago student to win the scholarship.