Former Olympic gold medalist in mathematics is now a Ph.D. student in computer science

If you are good at math, you might want to study computer science. This is the message to be learned from Mathias Knudsen’s trajectory as a student. In his senior year of high school, he won Olympic gold in mathematics, and now the 21-year-old student is involved in the research of randomized algorithms in collaboration with some of the world’s smartest people.

Mathias Knudsen, PhD student at Computer Science

Mathias is a math genius who prefers computer science

From soccer dreams to math championships

It was not always obvious that math, and its applied cousin, computer science, would become Mathias’ academic path of choice. Throughout his school years, Mathias never shoved specific interest in calculus or geometry, rather, like the rest of his class, he preferred to play soccer.

- If you like math in junior high, its not something you are likely admit. I did pretty well in math, but it was not a particular interest of mine. Back then, I dreamt of becoming a professional soccer player.

In senior high, something happened which made an impact on Mathias’ relationship to math. One day the math teacher introduced his sophmore class to the Georg Mohr math competition for high school students which challenges the brightest students with difficult math assignments and is a part of the draft of participants for the IMO, the International Mathematical Olympiad. The teacher succeeded in recruiting Mathias and a classmate.

With his newly found enthusiasm for math, Mathias threw himself into the scientific competitions, both Danish, European, and international. On a side note, it had a positive effect on his ability to concentrate on math that he got himself a serious injury which made him unable to play soccer for more than a year.

- We competed with each other about who did best. High school math suddenly became really cool because our teacher let us do our own thing in class.

Since then, Mathias has never looked back - he was hooked on math, very advanced math moreover.

Read more about the international science Olympics for high school students (Danish)

Olympic gold in Kazakhstan

The many competitions have brought Mathias far about in the world; for instance he has visited Poland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Germany, Norway, Estonia, and Canada as participant in various competitions for computer science and math. Mathias reached the top of his ambition in Kazakhstan in 2010 when he won Olympic gold in math - the first mathematical Olympic gold medal in Danish history.

- It was amazing! When we heard the results read aloud, I was so ecstatic that I just had to take a long run to burn off some of the energy. I was very surprised since I had made a miscalculation one day and thrown away one of the result sheets by mistake the other day.

Read more about Mathias’ Olympic gold at Berlingske (Danish)  

Danish championship in programming

Since then, Mathias has continued what has now become a beautiful tradition for using his brain power in intense competitions. As a college student he entered the programming team ‘Lambdabamserne’, and in his four years as a member he helped secure the title as Danish champions in programming for the Department of Computer Science (DIKU) no less than three times. Although this kind of extracurricular brain athletics is sufficiently gratifying in itself to balance the time and hard work spent (for instance, the academic development has shown itself to be most valuable in class), there are oodles of perks to sweeten the deal: The winners of the Danish championship are awarded 10,000 Danish kroner; free food and drinks are available; and there is plenty of opportunity to meet interesting new people and visit exciting new countries.

Ph.D. student in computer science

Life as a hardcore math genius is in no way boring. Mathias has graduated with a double major in math and computer science, and today he is a Ph.D. student supervised by professors Stephen Alstrup and Mikkel Thorup at DIKU. Here he works with algorithms as described in the CLRS book, Introduction to Algorithms, more specifically he focuses on randomized algorithms, especially hash functions. As such he has ultimately directed his talent for math towards computer science.

- I find theoretical math rather boring. People have been contemplating math for thousands of years, so, in a manner of speaking, all the low-hanging fruits have been picked already. In comparison, computer science is less well-researched.

Now Mathias has put course books behind him and is now doing research. To Mathias it is infinitely more appealing to be at the frontier of scientific breakthroughs and take part in pushing the limits of human knowledge. He has the privilege to do exactly this in collaboration with some of the world’s most ambitious people in his field, for instance with research labs in the US.

- During the last 6 months, I have visited the US six times, both New York, Portland, and San Francisco.

Today applied math is in the forefront of Mathias’ field of interests while soccer has been pushed to the background. Again it seems like fate has taken its turn in keeping the soccer ambitions under control, for even though Mathias normally plays high level soccer on a regular basis, an injury has forced him to leave to ball alone yet again. On a positive note, this will likely make it possible for Mathias to use all the extra energy on the academic discipline - like it did once before.