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Evan O’Dorney ’15

Evan M. O’Dorney ‘15 won first place in the National Spelling Bee and the Intel Science Talent Search, placed four times at the International Math Olympiad, and has been one of the top five scorers in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition for the past three years. But O’Dorney is much more than his rave-worthy accomplishments.

I greet O’Dorney in Adams dining hall, catching him before he leaves to tour prospective graduate schools for the rest of the week. He is slight of frame—shorter than I expected—and clad in a blue pullover from the American Mathematical Society. His wire-frame glasses perch on a slightly crooked nose. He smiles easily.

“The Gazette is also trying to get a hold of me, so you can share your results with them if you like,” he jokes.

Evan O’Dorney was a precocious child who was homeschooled his whole life. As a toddler, he checked out counting books from the library and taught himself addition. In middle school, he attended lectures by distinguished math professors through the Berkeley Math Circle, and by ninth grade, he enrolled in college math classes at U.C. Berkeley. The summer before O’Dorney’s sophomore year of high school, a professor at Stanford asked him to tackle a previously unsolved math problem. Not only did Evan solve the problem within two weeks, but he also turned his original mathematical proof into a prize-winning project at the INTEL Science and Talent Search.

O’Dorney wasn’t just a numbers guy, either; he had a knack for spelling words as well. His mother first suggested that he enter a spelling competition in the fourth grade, which was difficult at first because of O’Dorney’s homeschooling.

“We couldn’t find a school that would accept me to compete in their bee,” he says.

Eventually, however, one school took a chance on him, setting up a school-wide bee with four participants. O’Dorney won first place, advanced to regionals, and placed ninth in the county during his first competition.

But that was just the beginning of Evan’s spelling journey. With his mother’s help, O’Dorney eventually worked through the entire unabridged dictionary—twice. By the night before the Scripps National Spelling Bee in eighth grade, O’Dorney had narrowed down the entire dictionary to only fifteen words he wasn’t able to spell.

“The next day, one of my competitors got one of those fifteen words,” he says, recalling his triumph as the last speller standing.

While Evan has a natural affinity for numbers and letters, he claims that he has a harder time with faces and conversations. “It’s like I talk to a person for two hours—and then two weeks later, I don’t recognize their face, I don’t know that I ever met them, and I don’t remember anything that they said to me,” he explains. He refers to it as a “congenital anomaly.”

“I think the part of my brain designed to recognize people has been working on other stuff,” says O’Dorney. “[That’s why] one of the things I’m doing for Lent is working on listening to people.”

During the month of Lent, Evan—a devout Catholic who prays the rosary every weeknight—made up his mind to listen in on at least one conversation a day. Though he describes himself as an introvert by nature, O’Dorney had pledged to sit in the dining hall and tune into conversations about college social life.

“There’s trash talk…talk about sports, [and] guys talking about their girlfriends,” he says. “I’ve found that it really is labor. It’s not something that I enjoy all the time—but it has some rewards, and I’ve been learning stuff, and I’ve been getting better at it.”

Lately, O’Dorney says that he’s also been getting better at understanding emotions, an ability that had eluded him for many years. In his childhood, for instance, he often struggled to answer reading comprehension questions about how particular characters felt. “I feel like what has gotten me to finally understand emotion is music,” he reflects.

Music is very important to O’Dorney, who began taking piano lessons at the age of five. Now, he’s an avid player and composer who prefers writing music using number notations. “It’s actually faster than writing on a staff, at least for certain genres of music,” he explains.

In addition to playing the organ at the Church of St. Paul’s, O’Dorney often improvises original piano songs for ten minute stretches at a time. Because of his synesthesia, he perceives musical notes as colors based on the numbers they are assigned.

Next year, O’Dorney, who hopes to pursue a career in academia, will study at Cambridge University in England, in a specialized program called Part III of the Mathematical Tripos. “I was on the fence about it for a long time, especially once I learned that their classes [are] quite easy,” O’Dorney says. “Then I talked to a guy [there] who graduated from Harvard the year before…and he’s been having a wonderful time.”

Besides, O’Dorney is comfortable with the unknown. “That’s the cool thing about math,” he says. “Every day you walk in and you don’t know what the outcome will be.”

Yehong Zhu '18 is a joint philosophy and government concentrator in Mather House. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, Slate, Thought Catalog, Business Insider, The Crimson, The Harvard Independent, and The Harvard Political Review. When she's not busy writing, she can be found downing chai tea lattes, exploring the quaint college town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and philosophizing about life, love, and the universe. Say hi at yehongzhu@college.harvard.edu.
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