A Mathematician with a Penchant for People
Issue   |   Thu, 05/18/2017 - 20:56
Yen Nhi Troung Vu ’17
From her early days in Vietnam, Truong exhibited an incredible passion for mathematics, one that has only deepened at Amherst.

On campus, I have heard Yen Nhi Truong Vu described as a “math god.” And why not? As an undergraduate, Truong Vu plowed through the core of Amherst’s mathematics major in four semesters before studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After writing a spectacular math thesis and graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst, she was accepted to Princeton, Harvard and Stanford’s prestigious mathematics graduate programs.

When I asked Truong Vu about the nickname, however, she chafed at the suggestion. “I wouldn’t even enjoy that because everything comes to me at a cost, and that’s a cost of time and effort,” she said.

From Vietnam to Singapore
Truong Vu grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As a child, she cultivated an interest in math, which she attributes to her teachers. Truong Vu then took a test administered in various Southeast Asian countries that was designed to identify the brightest students in these countries and bring them to the prestigious St. Joseph’s Institute International High School in Singapore.

After excelling in the exam, she moved to Singapore alone at the age of 15, which taught her to be independent at a young age. At her high school, students lived in apartments with ten to twenty other students and one caretaker, but Truong Vu and the other students in her apartment soon found out that their caretaker was embezzling money from the students’ funds for food.

Truong Vu was forced to cook for herself every day and study for the school’s international baccalaureate program without the aid of a parent figure.

Her Style of Learning
From a young age, according to Truong Vu, her education exposed her to topics that would scare math majors in the United States, such as discrete math, elementary number theory and combinatorics. Yet, she emphasized that the ideas behind these topics were no more complex than those behind the typical high school history class in the United States.

At the age of ten or eleven, Truong Vu said, her teachers showed her proof by induction, a math technique that depends on a domino effect of positive integers. She compared this to a common topic in American high schools.

“Probably in grade 9 or 10, you should learn about the Vietnam War and then there’s this whole domino effect,” she said. “If you could understand it then, I’m pretty sure you could understand proof by induction.”

Truong Vu was quick to dismiss the notion that math is an onerous subject reserved for socially averse shut-ins. For her, learning is best when it is collaborative.

“I feel like learning is about sharing and talking to people and doing problem sets together,” she argued. This constant curiosity and teamwork is evident throughout Truong Vu’s life, and she enjoys math research above all due to the opportunities it provides for collective learning.

Truong Vu was attracted to the United States due to its excellent reputation for higher education. She didn’t want to go back to Vietnam, because she felt that good placement in the Vietnamese economy required connections and money, which she did not possess. In Singapore, there were only two universities — Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore — and she hadn’t enjoyed the learning environment in her high school, as it was competitive and not collaborative.

Truong Vu thus sought the tight-knit community and close interaction with professors that the liberal arts experience provided. With Amherst’s excellent academic standing and emphasis on providing an education for those without the financial means, she found a match in the college.

Seeking Walls at Amherst
Throughout her Amherst career, Truong Vu has been a constant presence in the math department. She took her first-year seminar with Professor Tanya Leise, who has been her advisor throughout college, and has worked closely with math professors Amanda Folsom and Gregory Call, amongst others.

Truong Vu found role models in her professors at Amherst. For her, they are inspirational because “they know a lot of things; they are very nice to you; and they are hardworking also.” She recalled one instance in which she found Call working at 2 a.m. in Seeley Mudd and other times when, after pulling an all-nighter, she found Folsom in the math department early in the morning.

Truong Vu started her Amherst career with a course in intermediate calculus. She initially explored applied math, completing research with Folsom in the summer between her first and sophomore year through the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program, but soon found herself more intrigued by the rigor of more theoretical math. In the spring of her sophomore year, she took Analysis; Groups, Rings and Fields; and Number Theory all in one semester, in addition to a 400-level economics course.

“I think that semester I was just on steroids for some reason,” Truong Vu said. The semester proved critical to turning her passion for math into a potential career.

Since then, Truong Vu has jumped headfirst into mathematical pursuits. She spent her entire junior year away from Amherst, with one semester at MIT and the other at France’s Université Paris Diderot.

Truong Vu has also served as a math tutor or TA for seemingly every class in the department, and her accolades include the Alice T. Shafer Mathematics Prize, awarded by the Association of Women in Mathematics, the Walker Prize in each of her first two years and the Charles W. Cole Scholarship.

She has also taken many classes in the economics department, where she serves as a peer tutor and collaborates extensively on research with professor Brian Baisa.

In her senior year, Truong Vu wrote a math thesis on mock modular forms, a topic in analytic number theory pioneered by famous Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

“Her honors thesis … is as exceptional as any thesis I’ve reviewed (which includes all the theses recommended for summa cum laude across the College in my fourteen years on the Committee of Six),” Call wrote.

Truong Vu is exceptionally intelligent, but what sets her apart as a student is her willingness to try and fail.

“When most students try to solve a problem, they stop when they hit a wall,” Baisa said. “They consider that a good day’s work. In contrast, Nhi is out there looking for walls because she really enjoys building new kinds of ladders that no one ever thought about making before.”

In his classes, Baisa noted, Truong Vu acted as a de facto TA for her classmates. Further, she led not just as a tremendous student but also as a community leader and a model of enthusiasm for scholarship.

In teaching or tutoring, perhaps the most difficult aspect is retaining an awareness of how difficult some topics are for others, no matter how easy they may feel personally. Truong Vu possesses the ability and work ethic to comprehend almost anything, but also the patience and awareness to understand others’ difficulties.

Balancing Contradictions
Truong Vu’s humility is perhaps the only thing more impressive than her accomplishments in math. When complimented, she quickly shifts the focus to others. In reflecting on her summers of research, Truong Vu highlights the extraordinary aptitude of her professors and collaborators. She does not merely acknowledge others’ accomplishments, but she eagerly seeks to learn from them as well.

“I know very little,” she said. “The more I know about math, the worse I feel.” This stands in stark contrast to her enormous accomplishments and the plentiful compliments on her character, aptitude and work ethic from professors and friends.

“As fine a mathematics student as I have taught in my 29 years at Amherst, Nhi is special,” Call said.

Truong Vu does not simply impress others in math study and research. She also brings passions that others might find surprising. Roger Van Peski, a Princeton undergraduate who worked with Truong last summer, claimed, “She has no patience for decadence and wasting time, but this does not mean she follows the stereotype of the mathematician with no worldly experience or practical skills.”

One of these skills is cooking, which Truong Vu sees as both a break from the precision for math and an opportunity to have a meal and talk around the table.

She balances traits that seem deeply contradictory. Truong Vu is remarkably independent but also most attracted to Amherst by the community. The stereotype of her field suggests she would feel most at home when lost in her own head, but Truong Vu is most vitalized when surrounded by others.

Her friend An Hoang ’18 said, “It is incredible that someone can be so smart and so silly at the same time.” This silliness is evident immediately in talking with her. When I asked Truong Vu about her passions, she cheekily answered, “I like watching YouTube.”

She has decided to attend Stanford mathematics graduate school next year, where she hopes to study analytic number theory. Upon leaving Amherst, Truong Vu is most sad to leave the relationships she has built over the course of four years, but that sentiment leaves me confident that she will only build more in the coming years.

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