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Olivia Ding ’21 awarded Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy

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    Award winner:  Olivia Ding '21 is the recipient of the 2021 Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Two and a half years ago, shortly after turning 18, Olivia Ding packed two suitcases and took a 12-hour plane ride to a new life.  

“I grew up in China,” said Ding, a member of William & Mary’s Class of 2021. “I was walking into the unknown, but was determined to face whatever rigor American colleges had to offer.”

In retrospect, Ding says attending William & Mary was one of the best decisions she’s ever made, but she didn’t arrive at that conclusion immediately.  

“For the first couple of months, I was overwhelmed and deterred from expressing my opinions,” she said. “I felt that the cultural barrier encaged my real personality, but surrounded by compassionate peers, mentored by incredible professors and inspired by the Tribe spirit, I came to realize that I belong to this wonderful community that I proudly call home.”

Ding is the 2021 recipient of William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. The honor is endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to recognize excellence in the sciences and mathematics in an undergraduate student.

A double major in mathematics and economics, Ding has managed to maintain a perfect GPA – with what one of her professors described as “a quite challenging curriculum.” She has excelled in the highest levels of mathematics and economics courses and has taken a host of courses outside her majors, in psychology, geology, English and philosophy.

In a letter recommending Ding’s nomination, the Thomas Jefferson Prize Selection Committee described her as “exceedingly gifted and intensely devoted to learning, an accomplished researcher, and an integral part of the mathematics community at William & Mary.” 

The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed in connection with Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the institution in 1693. This year, the Charter Day ceremony will be held virtually on February 11 at 7 p.m. The festivities will continue on February 12 from 1-5 p.m. at the Charter Day Adventure Race, which students may join on campus or virtually for a chance to win prizes by solving puzzles inspired by W&M's history and culture. 

Over the course of Charter Day weekend, the Jefferson Prize, along with a series of other prizes and awards will be presented to faculty, students, alumni and friends who have made a difference at William & Mary, in their communities and throughout the world. 

Ding served as a teaching assistant for four different mathematics professors, including serving as a TA for incoming business analytics master’s students when she was a rising sophomore. She participated the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at William & Mary performing matrix analysis in the summer of 2019.

In the summer of 2020, Ding worked on an independent project, which received the "Outstanding Student Poster" award at 2021 Joint Mathematics Meeting. A paper she co-authored based on her research into invariant matrix norms was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Linear Algebra and its Applications.

“It is extremely rare that a third year student has gone that far in advanced research, in addition to maintaining a perfect GPA,” one nominator wrote. 

“I have encountered students with similar natural abilities to Olivia’s before, and I have encountered students who work extremely hard. However, I have never encountered a student with as much natural ability who works as hard as Olivia does,” another nominator wrote.

Ding is currently one of four math students serving as student liaisons for prospective math majors from the Class of 2024. She makes herself available to answer questions from a host of prospective students curious about William & Mary and its mathematics department.

“What I like the most about William & Mary is its people,” she said. “I have made many friends with diverse backgrounds who are bright, inspiring and compassionate. Furthermore, I am greatly indebted to W&M’s fantastic faculty, especially those from the math department and economics department. The professors I have had are knowledgeable, enthusiastic about teaching, and deeply caring about their students. I enjoyed exploring various areas of interest under their guidance.”

Looking ahead, Ding plans to go to graduate school. She has applied to multiple Ph.D. programs in mathematics and economics and is looking forward to hearing back from them in March. So far, she has received one early offer from Yale. As for her more immediate hopes for the future…

“I just hope everyone stays safe and sane during this pandemic,” she said. “The end is in sight!”