Durham senior bags national honor

John Pardon places second in a prestigious math and science competition

Staff WriterMarch 14, 2007 

— John Pardon left the sunscreen at home.

For spring break, the Durham Academy senior carted a poster-board presentation on a math problem to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

He spoke with some of the world's most respected scientists and mathematicians. He met Vice President Dick Cheney.

And late Tuesday, the 17-year-old placed second out of more than 1,700 entrants in a prestigious math and science competition, the Intel Science Talent Search, winning a $75,000 scholarship.

The contest, which previously was sponsored by Westinghouse, has been held since 1942. Past finalists have gone on to earn the Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal and the National Medal of Science.

Pardon, who lives in Chapel Hill, competed against 40 finalists who completed research in the fields of chemistry, biology, engineering and other areas for a shot at a $100,000 scholarship.

News that he placed second left his mentor and former math teacher Andrew Ferrari fumbling for words.

"What a stupendous achievement," said Ferrari, a teacher at Durham Academy. He paused. "I'm not surprised, of course. Working with him every day, I could just see how far beyond me, and so many other people, his mind worked."

Pardon's project was in the field of differential geometry. He took an existing mathematical problem and solution and adjusted it to work on a new, general level, said Carol Wood, a judge in the competition and a math professor from Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

The paper he submitted showing his work was new research, worthy of publication, she said.

"He's a very profound thinker and a very strong mathematician," Wood said. "He took an existing result ... looked at it differently and found a very elegant solution."

Pardon already has impressed educators at home. By his sophomore year of high school, he was taking math courses at Duke University, where his father is a math professor.

He has twice won a gold medal in the International Olympiad in Informatics, a computing contest for high-schoolers.

Pardon was the only Intel finalist from North Carolina.

He was runner-up to Mary Masterman, 17, of Oklahoma City, who built an apparatus called a spectrograph that helps distinguish the characteristics of molecules.

In previous interviews, he said he was considering a list of prestigious colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Harvard and the California Institute of Technology.

Will Pardon's most recent honor gain favor in the admissions process?

"He doesn't need it," Wood said.

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or skhanna@newsobserver.com.

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