PRIMES: Xiaoyu He's Story
After participating in high school math competitions for years, working on research with MIT-PRIMES opened up a new world of mathematics for me. I was originally most interested in PRIMES to make submissions for science competitions, not expecting research to be much different from or more difficult than what I had been doing before. When I really started working on my project under my mentor's guidance, what really shocked me was how simultaneously deep and slow research can be.
Math research is deep and slow: you spend all your time thinking. We tested dozens, if not hundreds, of conjectures, and worked out a mind-boggling number of small cases. Each time I thought I had reached a complete solution, new problems would arise and a new layer of complexity developed. Without solving the original problem, I was able to develop a rich, complex understanding of the system that was more than worthwhile. A whole sub-theory emerged from the study of one specific case. I am happy a combinatorics project was chosen for me because combinatorics combines the physical intuition of real-world systems with the more elusive abstractions of other fields of mathematics.
PRIMES is a unique experience for high-school students because it offers a first taste of true scientific research. The most endearing quality of the PRIMES program to me is the time scale: in no other research program will you be able to spend close to a year working on the project with the guidance of a mentor. This is the scale in which research is meant to be done.
Xiaoyu He worked on the project Rotor-Routers under the mentorship of Tanya Khovanova.