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Libby grad excelling in math at Montana State

by By Diana Setterberg, MSU News Service
| March 31, 2023 7:00 AM

Montana State University freshman Zane Nordwick decided halfway through last semester to change his major from physics to mathematics so he could, “skip the middle guy and go straight to math.”

That’s not to say his enthusiasm for the subject is unlimited – the first-year student from Libby has set a goal, for example, not to take a single statistics class in college.

“I’m more interested in pure math and applied math,” he explained.

This semester, Nordwick is engaged in his normal coursework while studying differential geometry and differential forms through the Directed Reading Program, or DRP, offered by MSU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Letters and Science.

The Directed Reading Program is a semester-long program that pairs undergraduate students with a graduate student mentor to read and discuss a book on a mutual subject of interest. The program culminates in a special seminar at the end of the semester, during which undergraduate participants give a short talk about what they learned.

He also is preparing to compete this spring in the UChicago Trading Competition, where teams from across the nation will compete in simulated trading exercises. The competition focuses on algorithmic trading in three areas: market making, options trading and time series analysis.

Last year’s simulation centered on trading lumber futures while taking precipitation data into account, Nordwick said.

The opportunity to compete at the University of Chicago arose from Nordwick’s participation last summer at the five-week Academy of Math and Programming, which was sponsored by the trading firm Jane Street Capital and held at New York University.

There, as one of 45 participants from all over the country, he met three friends who would become his team members for the UChicago competition.

Though all four attend different schools, together they are studying the strategies of past successful teams, making sure the lightning-fast computer trading program they’ve written is functioning flawlessly and developing a game plan based on their trading knowledge, some of which they acquired over the summer at the academy.

Nordwick credits his family and school teachers for recognizing his early math aptitude and finding scholastic and enrichment opportunities for him.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, he studied calculus with private tutors, enabling him to take and pass the Advanced Placement calculus exam. He applied for and was awarded a spot at the New York academy after seeing an ad for it while watching a YouTube video of mathematician and stand-up comedian Matt Parker.

The Libby school district, which receives federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, funding because it serves a large proportion of low-income families, paid for Zane and other college-bound students to tour colleges, including MSU.

“In Zane’s case, because he is a STEM student from an underrepresented area, the GEAR UP program at his high school went above and beyond to help him pursue his interests,” said Judi Haskins, director of GEAR UP MSU, which is in its second year of providing first-year services on the Montana State campus to students who graduated from GEAR UP high schools.

Since coming to Bozeman, Nordwick said, he has been grateful for the resources, support and recreational outings provided by GEAR UP MSU, starting with a welcome program last fall designed to acclimate students from Montana’s rural, low-income schools to the new and much larger campus environment.

Haskins said Nordwick has used GEAR UP support and services and is always appreciative and encouraging to other GEAR UP students.

“He even willingly visits with middle and high school students who visit MSU and informs them of how college education and the GEAR UP MSU program can benefit them,” she said.

As he pursues his studies, Nordwick will continue to think about his future career options. Though he is excited about the upcoming competition in Chicago, he doesn’t necessarily aspire to a career in trading.

“I learned in New York that there are many, many things one can do with a mathematics degree, like consulting for companies. It was interesting to see the different things I could do with math,” Nordwick said.

He is happy he chose to come to MSU, where his DRP mentor Devin Goodwin agrees the talented underclassman will be able to explore a world of possibilities.

“The Department of Mathematics is extremely helpful and caring for its students,” Goodwin said. “It offers a variety of opportunities for students like Zane who are curious and eager to learn, such as the DRP, weekly seminars on a variety of topics, and a staff that is always ready and happy to help.”