Oct 12, 2021

Finding Today’s Ramanujans: The Spirit of Ramanujan STEM Talent Initiative

The Spirit of Ramanujan STEM Talent Initiative awards grants to young people all over the world who show exceptional promise in STEM fields. Applications for the 2022 Spirit of Ramanujan Awards are open through April 22, 2022.

By Templeton Staff

“The world is a huge place.”

Ken Ono, Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics at the University of Virginia and vice president of the American Mathematical Society, radiates awe when explaining his decision to launch the Spirit of Ramanujan STEM Talent Initiative (SoR).

The project’s namesake, Srinivasa Ramanujan, was a late nineteenth-century, self-taught Indian mathematician who from childhood filled notebooks with formulas that were decades more advanced than those of his Western contemporaries. Lacking formal education and describing his ideas as visions from a Hindu family goddess, however, he had trouble finding a receptive audience among European scholars.

Fortunately, there was one exception: Cambridge University mathematician G. H. Hardy, who recognized Ramanujan’s singular genius and invited him to study with him during World War I in England. During this time, Ono explains, Ramanujan “rewrote much of modern math.”  

Although Ramanujan died at the young age of 32, his discoveries continue to impact vital scientific fields such as signal processing, cell phone technology, and gravitational wave studies.

“Scientists still go back over his notebooks,” Ono says. But had Hardy not given Ramanujan the opportunity to study and publish, the brilliant thinker’s insights would have been lost to history.   

“That’s why we call it the ‘spirit,’” Ono explains, referring to Spirit of Ramanujan’s title. “It’s the idea of, What if he had never been discovered? What if [Hardy] had not responded to his letter?”

By awarding grants to promising young STEM scholars all over the world, SoR aims to support today’s Ramanujans, talented young people throughout the world who may lack access to the opportunities they need to fully develop their genius.

To date, the organization has awarded funding to 66 recipients worldwide in 16 countries. Past winners have gone on to win awards in global forums such as the Regeneron Science Talent Search and the International Math Olympiads. Ono notes that although around half of the recipients are from the United States, they are working to expand the program’s reach into more regions. In 2021, SoR awarded its first fellowship to a Central American scholar, Fernando Trejos of Costa Rica.  

Although the awards are not large—the average is $5,000—they can still make a significant difference in the lives of their recipients, some of whose families make as little as $1,000 a year. “For most of the world,” Ono adds, “$5,000 goes a very long way.”

The project first came together when Ono served as associate producer and mathematics consultant for Pressman Film’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, a feature film about Ramanujan’s life starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

Ono was asked to participate in a Q&A panel about the film at a Breakthrough Foundation dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. As he conversed with the other panelists, he had an epiphany: “What we really need to do . . . is recognize that someone like Ramanujan came from Planet Earth.”

Ono was inspired to launch an initiative that would reach out to the towns and villages where more brilliant minds surely lived. He received two-year funding from TWCF to pilot the project, and continued support from the foundation thereafter.

SoR awards between 20 and 30 fellowships per year, from a mix of direct applications and referrals. Although past recipients have ranged in age from eight years old to mid-twenties, most are in late high school or early college.

“It’s hard to describe the prototypical winner,” says Ono. The 2021 recipients, for instance, include eight-year-old Mingyang Cen of California, who is currently enrolled in math courses at UC Berkeley, and fourteen-year-old Shreya Hegde of India, who is conducting research on gravitational waves with astrophysicist Eric Myers. Recipients often use their funds to purchase educational resources, attend prestigious math and science camps, and study with mentors in their fields of interest.

The SoR initiative has become widely known for its role in fostering global talent in STEM, with National Geographic recently recognizing it alongside the MacArthur Fellowship in the magazine’s summer 2018 issue on genius.

“It’s mind-boggling what some of these people are able to achieve, and rewarding that we can facilitate them.” Ono notes that many of the winners are now enrolled in some of the best graduate programs in the world.  

The 2021 Spirit of Ramanujan Awardees are:

  • Ikuya Kaneko, a rising Cal Tech freshman from Ibaraki prefecture, Japan, who is using his fellowship to support joint research with professional mathematician Paul Humphries
  • Shreya Hegde, a high-school student from Bangalore, India, who is using her fellowship to support research on gravitational waves with astrophysicist Eric Myers
  • Sean Li of Danville, California, a rising freshman at the University of Virginia, who will use his fellowship to support his research in number theory at the University of Virginia
  • Hannah Guan of San Antonio, Texas, a Stanford University student who is using her fellowship to support her research in algebra and number theory
  • Mingyang Cen, an eight-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area, whose fellowship will connect him to resources and extra enrichment programs in analysis, topology, geometry, and algebra
  • Fernando Trejos from San Rafael de Alajuela, Costa Rica, who will use his fellowship to support his research on analytic number theory with mathematician Jesse Thorner
  • Shreyan Jha, a 12-year-old from Mumbai, India, whose fellowship will support his participation in innovative virtual math programs
  • Maggie Yao, a 16-year-old from San Diego, California, who will use her fellowship to pursue research in condensed matter physics with David Campbell at Boston University
  • Julia Moosikasuwan, a 14-year-old from New York who plans to use her fellowship to participate in Awesome Mathematics
  • Ayan Nath, a high-school senior from Assam, India, who will use his award to purchase advanced mathematics books for original research
  • Kaylee Chen, a 15-year-old from Irmo, South Carolina, who plans to put her fellowship toward summer math programs and original research in cancer biology
  • Andrei Mandelshtam, a high-school-student from Irvine, California, who will use his fellowship to support his research in algebraic geometry and the theory of Brauer groups for elliptic curves over number fields
  • Nikhil Kulkarni, a 15-year-old high school student from Nashik, India, who will put his fellowship toward supporting research with Professor Rajiv Gandhi at Rutgers University
  • Saee Patil, a 14-year-old self-taught girl from Pune India who will use her fellowship to learn Java and take Art of Problem Solving Courses
  • Srijon Sarkar, a high-school senior from Calcutta, India, who will use his fellowship to study abstract algebra and analytic number theory in Awesome Math
  • Yunseo Choi, a recent high-school graduate from Seoul, Korea who will use her fellowship to study reduction types of elliptic curves over number fields at the University of Virginia
  • Ram Krishna Goel, a sixteen-year-old high-school student who will use his fellowship to attend the Canada/USA Mathcamp
  • Jonas Iskander, a recent high-school graduate from Atlanta, Georgia, who will use his fellowship to support research on the Sato-Tate phenomenon for modular forms with University of Illinois number theorist Jesse Thorner
  • Fenghuan (Linda) He, a 15-year-old high school students from Newton, Massachussetts, who will use her fellowship to further her research in algebraic combinatorics
  • Quinn Perian, a high-school junior from Boulder, Colorado, who will use his fellowship to participate in the Canada/USA Mathcamp

Applications for the 2022 awards are being accepted now through April 30, 2022. To learn more about the Spirit of Ramanujan STEM Talent Initiative or apply, visit the project’s website or Facebook page.