Biographical bits for

Robert Barrington Leigh (1986 - 2006)


Posthumous degree


Publications and writing

Declarations from the search

Robert was a math scholar, sure, but he was also a gentle and kind young man, a good friend with a very bright future. Here are some words from people in his various communities, the first two from during the search.

An E-Conversation with a Math Olympian

Submitted by Robert Wong
Vernon Barford School
Edmonton, Alberta

Recently I was asked by the Math Council to do a write up about the double Olympic Medal winner in the 2003 International Math Olympiad and the International Physics Olympiad. Two thoughts came to mind: Where is Robert Barrington Leigh? And what kind of questions should I ask him that’s not already been asked by various news organizations? Firstly, with the help of Professor Andy Liu, I was able to get a more recent update on where about is the famous Edmontonian. Robert is now a freshman starting his first year of study of Mathematics at the University of Toronto. Thus, a face-to-face conversation with him would be difficult. Email it is. Secondly, I thought it would be best if the questions were asked from a student’s perspective. After brainstorming with my students and a collaboration with Shauna Boyce, the questions were set. The following covers our email conversation.

Q: What math topics did you have to work with in the competition?

A: The problems I solved during this year's competition -- two out of six -- concerned geometry (the usual: circles, lines, and angles) and number theory (properties of whole numbers). There was also one algebra question and two more number theories: The hardest concerned powers of prime numbers. Significantly, the International Math Olympiad (IMO) considers calculus as post-secondary material; thus I didn't feel obliged to study it! The problems chosen for the Olympiad are generally more difficult when tackled with calculus than without.

Q: How competitive was the Olympiad, and was it stressful?

A: The Olympiads are organized so as to make them as friendly as possible: we write the contest within a few days of our arrival, then try to concentrate on enjoying ourselves and making friends for the rest of the event. I particularly recall playing a card game with members of the Chinese team who seemed just as relaxed as the Canadians. Understandably though, some of us were anxious while the questions were being marked and the results posted. In addition to meeting other students, the International Olympiads are a unique opportunity to explore a new country and culture. I was particularly fortunate this year to visit Tokyo, because I do not often travel outside Canada and certainly have never left the western hemisphere. I think it's essential to have a sense of the scale and diversity of our planet, and the abstraction of mathematics might not seem to be the best field to develop such an understanding; the IMO lets students do both. In general, then, the Olympiad was not stressful -- even the 270-minute exams themselves were calmer than one might expect. If I were panicking, I would make more mistakes than usual and there would certainly be no room in my thought processes to discover solutions. Thus the exam is a mixed bag of exploration, insight, and occasionally frantic writing.

Q: What kind of recognition have you received as a result of the competition?

A: There were articles published about the Olympiads in Edmonton, Calgary, and Banff newspapers, and I was heard on an Edmonton radio show last spring.

Q: Did you spend much time outside of school working on or studying math topics?

A: Certainly: I have never been content with learning only what I am being taught officially -- and there are always contests to study for. One useful tool has been a correspondence program for high school students organized by Dr. Ed Barbeau at the U of T: every month he sends out a problem set and marks everyone's solutions. Moreover, over the past few years I have been invited to numerous math camps, which are, perhaps surprisingly, almost as much fun as they are instructive. In particular, there's the Alberta summer camp that is held alternately in Edmonton and Calgary, a corresponding national camp at the University of Western Ontario, a spring camp at Waterloo, a January camp for IMO contenders at York, and a training camp for the IMO itself in July that was held this year in Calgary and Banff. I am deeply grateful to the professors and university departments involved, and to the sponsors of each of these camps: ESSO, the Canadian Mathematical Society, and the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Q: What are your plans, career-wise and is math a part of that plan?

A: Most likely math will be my principal focus for decades to come. How I will manage to implement this focus in a career is not yet certain.

Q: What are you studying now?

A: I am registered for a math-physics double major (with greater emphasis on math), but I think I'll also pursue the odd computer science course. Right now, I'm taking 2nd-year math and physics plus a single first- year computer science course and a sociology seminar intended for first- year students.

Q: What were your recent accomplishments in the last three years?

Q: How many articles or books have you written? Published?

A: Several years ago, two articles were published with Richard Ng and help from Prof. Andy Liu at the U of A; one was reprinted in the Journal of the ATA. I am also in the process of helping Prof. Liu to write a book of translated problems and solutions from a Hungarian math competition.

Q: What are the names of the articles or books?

A: Zigzag, Minimizing Aroma Loss. Hungarian Problem Book IV

Q: Were your parents good in math?

A: Yes, I would say that interest in math runs in the family. My father was my first math teacher and the one who could teach me best for many years.

Q: When did you start working on math problems? Age and grade

A: Sadly I don't remember that far back, but in grade 1 (age 6) I was asking my teacher for enrichment to the math curriculum. In grade 5 I wrote my first multiple-choice math contest, and in grade 6 joined a math club organized by Prof. Liu. There I discovered a "long-answer" math contest called the International Tournament of the Towns, which I enjoyed immensely despite its being slightly above my level.

Q: How many hours of math do you do in a week in elementary, junior and senior high?

A: About three -- I certainly don't remember in elementary. There are also times when I'm not expressly working on math, but I'm just thinking about a certain problem -- in the shower or what have you. But naturally, I wished I had more time for math than was available.
Q: What do you enjoy doing when you have free time? Hobbies?
A: Apart from math, chatting with friends, etc., I enjoy music, in particular playing the piano, as well as cross-country skiing and running. Edmonton has a very supportive Nordic ski club of which I am glad to have been a member since elementary school. Also, I have a casual interest in computer programming -- my brother-in-law is a software developer.
Q: What kind of books do you read?

A: Like many people I must confess that I ought to be reading a much greater variety and volume of books than I do. Currently my reading agenda consists of math books -- recreational and otherwise -- and other generally science-related nonfiction, fiction, and biography.
Q: Who's your mentor in math?
A: Without doubt it's Prof. Liu, an award-winning mathematics educator working at the U of A, who in grade 11 even tutored me privately on a weekly basis. We have been in contact since grade 6 through his math club, and most recently he was the leader for the 2003 IMO team. Not only has Prof. Liu been a dedicated tutor in mathematics and personal friend, but he has also introduced me to many other young mathematicians, and crucially, showed me how rewarding a career in math can be.
Q: How do you prepare for math tests? Contests?
A: The same way as anyone else: I familiarize myself with the standard problem solving techniques, and then attempt to solve sample problems. If I get stuck on a problem, I might move on to the next, or I might look up the solution in case the same approach can be applied elsewhere. On a contest, the range of insights needed for different problems is much broader, so that knowing the solution to a particular problem is less valuable than it might be on a school test. Seeing the solutions to many sample problems is still helpful, but solving them myself is key.
Q: What are your educational goals? Career goals?

A: Learn a great deal of math and physics - I have no idea - save the world...

Q: Do you have any advice for others who want to excel in math?

A: Find others with the same goal; it's more exciting when you challenge each other to excel. There are so many good math problems on the Internet (or alternatively, in the library) that I'll never run out of them. The Canadian Math Society also has some great resources such as Dr. Barbeau's Mathematical Olympiads Correspondence Program (, especially if you need someone to mark your solutions -- this is an important part of training.
As usual, it must be stressed that without practice, speed and creativity in math diminish over time.

Q: What would you say to people who do not like math or struggles with math?

A: Well, I certainly don't hold it against them: for my own part, while I perhaps pick up mathematical ideas faster than average there are other skills, which I find difficult and therefore unpleasant (not least arithmetic!). On the other hand, mathematics is diverse enough to allow someone to abhor one branch and appreciate the charm of another. Puzzles created by Binary Arts Inc. tend to be friendly tools for exercising the mathematical parts of one's brain without noticing it -- for example, Rush Hour.

Competitions and honours