Attention of individual faculty members in the mathematics department brought Smith to William and Mary, while individual professors also contributed to his achievements.
"In high school, I called some of the math professors here at William and Mary and asked them if they would be willing to meet with me," he said. "They were. I met with five faculty members. I left with a really good impression. That contributed more than anything else to my coming here."
As a freshman, Smith was admitted to a summer Research for Undergraduates (REU) Program, although it was usually restricted to upperclass students.
In a letter supporting Smith's nomination for the Jefferson Prize, Associate Professor Vladimir Bolotnikov noted that Smith continued working with him on an advanced topic after the REU and eventually became a co-author of a paper published in the journal Linear Algebra and Applications. Continuing research work with mathematics faculty could lead to two additional papers published in peer-reviewed journals.
"Paul's math GPA is 4.0," Bolotnikov wrote in his nomination letter. "In fact this perfect score does not reflect enough his superb performance in classes. I have repeatedly heard from my colleagues that Paul is by far the best student in their classes, and if the grading system allowed an A+, undoubtedly Paul would get a GPA higher than 4.0. Given his deep devotion to mathematics, it is remarkable that he can still maintain his general GPA above 3.9." After his sophomore year, Smith joined about 20 other high-performing math students in the U.S. Department of Defense Director's Summer Program at Fort Meade. Participation required security clearance.
"They had a great group of students up there," Smith said. "Many of them had taken graduate-level classes, but I think together we were able to make progress on a number of problems."
He studied math with Russian mathematicians for a semester as a participant in the Mathematics in Moscow Program, supported by the National Science Foundation. The classes, though taught in English, were rigorous, he said. Negotiating day-to-day life on the streets of Moscow while learning Russian was challenging as well, but he says that back in Williamsburg he has had plenty of support.
"Every math professor I've had has been really good," he said. "Four really stand out though. I've had a lot of classes with professors (David) Lutzer and (Nahum) Zobin. Professor Lutzer was my undergraduate academic adviser and Professor Zobin was the one who really recommended I apply to the Math in Moscow Program. I've done research with Professor (Charles) Johnson starting in my freshman year. And Professor Bolotnikov-I got my first publishable results working with him and right now he's my honors adviser."
Despite the grades, publications and honors, higher mathematical concepts do not always come easily to Smith.
"It's not like I just always see things and 'get it.' Sometimes when I try to learn new material, it seems that I just sit and stare at the page for a long time, not understanding anything," he said. "But eventually, if I work at it, it'll just click and it will make sense."
Smith has applied to study mathematics at nine graduate schools and expects to hear from them in a month or so. He has not settled on a mathematics specialty yet. "I'll probably choose my specialty based on the strength of the school I attend and the professors there," he said. "I've really liked everything I've studied."
Smith is a graduate of Blacksburg High School and is the son of Marcus Smith and Carmel Wheeler, neither of whom is a mathematician.
"My dad is a lawyer. It's been a long time since he's been able to help me with my math homework," Smith said.