09.07.2024

Travel | Friends | Volunteering | Equal opportunities | Menschen

All about math and Mathys

If you walked past Mathys Douma in the street, you probably wouldn't assume you'd just crossed Switzerland’s first gold medalist at the International Mathematical Olympiad in 17 years. The laid-back Jurassien does not match the stereotype of a mathematical prodigy. Who is this young man with the contagious smile? Volunteer Tanish Patil paints a portrait.

On April 1st, 2023: Mathys Douma and Bora Olmez collected Swiss Mathematical Olympiad (SMO) gold medals for their unprecedentedly perfect performances.

On July 22nd, 1991, Switzerland's first ever contestant at an International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) - Bea Wollenmann, one of only 17 girls competing that year - strode up to the stage at the closing ceremony and accepted a bronze medal. Bea was the first of Switzerland's 110 contestants winning 78 medals so far in 33 years of IMO participation. 

 

Fast forward about a billion seconds to April 1st, 2023. Mathys Douma and Bora Olmez collected Swiss Mathematical Olympiad (SMO) gold medals for their unprecedentedly perfect performances. They would be part of Switzerland's team for the 64th IMO in Japan and that July, Mathys would win Switzerland's second ever gold medal since the first one in 2006. A time when Hips Don't Lie by Shakira was top of the charts and Mathys’ birth in Delémont was still a few months away. 

 

Mathys’ parents - his mother is from France and Benin, his father from Cameroon - met in Switzerland, where they both work in medicine. As a child, Mathys joined as many mathematical opportunities as possible - the Cours Euler, the Fédération Suisse des Jeux Mathématiques, and of course, the SMO. “I definitely feel mostly Swiss, even if my family tree has roots elsewhere,” he says. The food at home is often ‘boring and Swiss’, he admits, although he professes an acquired taste for ginger from his parents’ cooking. After Mathys was seen drinking ginger shots for breakfast at IMO 2022, speculation arose among other participants on whether ginger might be the secret to his success. However, he professes that it’s actually “music by Tom Rosenthal, fresh air in the morning, and a good night of sleep”.

 

At the IMO, students solve a total of 6 problems in 9 hours over the course of two days. At IMO 2023, Mathys solved all but the hardest problem perfectly, making him the first Swiss to gain 35 points and reach place 28 out of over 600. The first person he told about his gold medal was his mother. “I told her by email… for the suspense!”

Switzerland’s first gold medalist at the International Mathematical Olympiad in 17 years.

 

Many contestants struggle to explain what they do at math Olympiads to their friends and family. Mathys would describe the SMO as “more interactive and personal” than school: rather than learning things by heart, “you have a few rules, and the rest is a sandbox for you to play in!”. He appreciates having many different groups of companions with different perspectives in life: his math Olympiad friends, his high school friends, as well as his friends at other Olympiads. Mathys also participated at the Swiss Philosophy Olympiad and attended the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO). He also has friends in other Olympiads who he met through Swiss Youth in Science or at OlyDay, the annual end-of-the-year party of the Science Olympiads.

 

He admits that it was easier to make friends at IPO than IMO. He mentions that “...a smaller environment also meant it was maybe easier to make friends with people. I still have a lot of friends from my time at IPO, whereas at IMO, a bigger crowd means it can be harder to get to know people properly.” Indeed, he is still in contact with many of his philosophical friends. At IMO last year in Japan, he met up with his Japanese friend from IPO, who gave him presents: “origami, chocolate - so I had a lot of lucky charms for the exam!”. However, he readily agrees that his experience at IMO was superior in many ways - for one, “the showers at the hotel weren’t broken!”

 

Mathys’ passions for philosophy and maths feed into each other in many ways, and he finds many similarities between the two disciplines: “In philosophy, you turn your intuition into something rigorous, which is very similar to how it works in maths. The main difference, perhaps, is that mathematics usually has one correct answer, whereas philosophy is of course open to multiple interpretations - but both are really creative.” 

 

Mathys at IPO 2022 in Lisbon.

 

Mathys sees himself being involved in the SMO for many years to come and would love to attend IMO 2026 in China as leader. He loves to teach and feels that the way mathematics is approached in the high school curriculum can be improved. He argues that there should be a focus on “things that are not necessarily purely mathematical in nature, but still important to learn - problem-solving skills, finding counterexamples, just the way of thinking itself.” He adds that different people learn in different ways, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

 

Volunteers like Mathys are essential to the Science Olympiads in Switzerland; over 400 people contribute their free time to the ten associations. Many of the participants at SMO go on to join the association in some capacity: whether by teaching, correcting, proposing problems, traveling to international competitions as leaders or- perhaps most importantly - cooking and looking after the kids at the camp. 

 

Asked whether he thinks that talented participants like him have a duty to pass on their knowledge to the next generation, Mathys is pensive. He feels that “...people who enjoy their experience will naturally become volunteers anyway, right?” and thinks that it is wonderful that such an organic supply exists. For the more general question of whether prodigious mathematicians should devote themselves to research in mathematics - rather than providing their much-demanded skills to domains like finance - he argues that people have a responsibility to improve society and the lives of people around them, but that this can be integrated outside of one’s regular job. 

 

Mathys is also deeply aware of the inequities in mathematical Olympiads. Last year at the IMO, just 67 contestants out of 618 were female. Only 13 of 112 competing countries were from Africa, none of them making the top 50. Mathys talked with the deputy leader of Cameroon when the country first competed in 2023 and is happy to help development of mathematical Olympiads on the continent in any way he can, although he adds that he thinks that “(...) it’s a cause that is just as important as many other causes”.

 

Mathys receives the prize for the best individual international performance on OlyDay 2023.

 

At the end of the day, Mathys considers himself Swiss at heart while also taking pride in what might make him different to his peers, from the color of his skin to the strong emphasis he places on activism. He enjoys the multiculturalism of the SMO where many participants come from diverse backgrounds. Mathys has faced prejudice before, but thinks that the best way to deal with it is by breaking stereotypes. He feels that the most important thing to do is to just try: “If someone managed to do it before you, you know it’s possible!”. However, he stresses that to encourage them to try something new, people also need role models. Perhaps he can be just that to some of the participants he meets as a volunteer. 

 

Next year, Mathys will complete his Bachelor’s degree in maths at EPFL, after which he wants to take a break from his education to see the world. He also hopes to help when the IMO is hosted by Switzerland. Regarding his own career, he makes few predictions, wanting to explore the many options out there. “The world is big and there are a lot of things to do!”, he says. Or, as one of his favorite lines by Tom Rosenthal goes: “Don’t die curious!”

 

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About the author:  Tanish Patil writes newsletters, teaches combinatorics and cooks chicken wings at the SMO. He claims there is a considerable overlap in the skills needed for each of his roles.

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