This story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Harker Magazine.
By Vikki Bowes-Mok
“I’m actually still shocked.… When they read out the second place, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting anything,” said a smiling Yi Sun ’06, when he was interviewed in 2009 by NBC 11 after winning second place in the Intel Science Talent Search. “I really didn’t think it went that well.”
But obviously, it did go well for Sun, then a senior at Harker, who competed against 1,500 students to win second place in the prestigious competition.
Sun, who was born in Shanghai and moved all over China, then to Canada and a few cities in the U.S. as a child, arrived at Harker in seventh grade. His natural inclination toward complex math topics was evident to every teacher he encountered, including Vandana Kadam, middle school math department chair, who encouraged him to participate in math competitions.
“He is one of three students who I have taught in 20 years that I remember to have had a genuine love for the subject, which was at a level that is unparalleled,” said Kadam. “Apart from his amazing math abilities, the one thing that I fondly remember about Yi is his immense modesty and his maturity at that age.”
His modesty is still intact even after completing his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master of advanced studies in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, and a bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics from Harvard University.
Today Sun is a Simons Fellow in the math department at Columbia University. His research interests are in representation theory and integrable systems and their applications to probability and random matrices.
“These are pretty technical subjects that aren’t going to be that relatable, but basically I spend my time researching, writing papers and teaching,” said Sun. “I like to have a balance between the three and working with freshmen is kinda refreshing.”
Sun’s passion for teaching has been fed over the years at the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, where he has been an instructor for seven summers.
“I attended this summer program after doing well in math competitions, which are not very fun to watch,” Sun said with a soft laugh. “The first year I went, I thought I was good at math, but then I was surrounded by these super smart people and very difficult problems.”
As a student, in addition to mathematics, he also loved history, art history, French and English, which allowed him to reflect on various subjects from a different angle.
“Sure, he was exceptionally brilliant, but what I remember most was his smile and how much he loved to laugh,” said Kevin Lum Lung, a college counselor at Harker. “And he always greeted everyone with that wonderful smile, treated everyone with respect and was willing to help anyone who asked.”
Although math is clearly Sun’s passion, other interests include trivia (he captained Harker’s Quiz Bowl team to two second place finishes), coffee (he’s been to nearly every coffee shop in New York City) and powerlifting (which he learned from a “large Ukrainian dude who had a silver medal”).
“Yi was a genius, but he also worked very hard. He could’ve easily skipped on doing the mundane homework, but he never did,” said Bradley Stoll, upper school math teacher. “To this day, Yi is the one student by whom all others could be measured, if one were to do that. He’s a legend at Harker … really.”
Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective.