Section: News

Students gather for a ‘perfect’ day at Mini Math Conference

Students gather for a ‘perfect’ day at Mini Math Conference

Professor of Mathematics Judy Holdener gave the keynote talk. | AUDREY BAKER

On Sunday, Kenyon’s chapters of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) and Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM) hosted a five-hour “Mini Math Conference” in Hayes Hall. The event — which was organized by AWM President Ella Wilson ’23 and AWM Vice President Khue Tran ’25 — featured a keynote, student talks, a math competition, the opportunity to tie-dye AWM T-shirts and a math activity fair.

About 25 students and professors attended the conference, including four from Denison University. According to Wilson, AWM polled its members to decide on activities for the conference and then coordinated with the Student Council Business and Finance Committee and faculty members to set up the event. In addition to advertising to the Kenyon community, the organizers reached out to math professors from nearby schools like Denison.

Professor of Mathematics Judy Holdener gave a keynote address titled “Descartes’ Spoof Perfect Number is Not a Happenstance!” Holdener began her talk by passing out a warm-up activity for audience members that outlined the “sum of divisors” function — a function that adds up all the positive divisors of any given number. She used this to introduce the concept of a “perfect number,” which is defined as a number that is equal to half the sum of all of its divisors (including the number itself) — such as the number six. The rest of her presentation focused on research that she had conducted with Emily Rachfal ’20 that sought to address the mathematical patterns behind René Descartes’ observation that the number 198,585,576,189 would be an odd perfect number if only one of its divisors — 22,021 — were a prime number. It is not, making 198,585,576,189 a “spoof” perfect number. Currently, it is unknown whether any actual odd perfect numbers exist.

“There’s some serious meaning [behind Descartes’ observation],” Holdener said in her talk. “These perfect variants [spoof perfect numbers] are not just oddities that mathematicians come up with because they can’t understand perfect numbers. They’re actually intrinsic to the study. That was really eye-opening to me.”

After the keynote, six students gave 10-minute presentations on math-related topics of their choosing. “They were all really fun, and it was cool to learn what different students are researching across the department!” Wilson wrote in an email to the Collegian. Most of the speakers presented research they had done over the summer or during the semester, and others talked about topics of personal interest and extensions of class projects. Ethan Bonnell ’23 used triangle numbers and group theory to explain why there are 28 dominoes in a set, which he said was inspired by a conversation he had with his dad’s friends over break. 

The conference featured a multiple-choice math competition accessible to students whether or not they had taken any advanced math courses, and attendees had the option of taking a version without the multiple-choice answers for a greater challenge. A first-year student from Denison won the competition.

“Thank you to [Holdener], who graciously agreed to give the keynote, [Associate Professor of Mathematics Marie Snipes], who agreed to have the math department sponsor the lunch, [Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Kitty Yang] for her consistent help along the way and [Coordinator of Student Engagement Wendy Newell] for helping us order everything!” Wilson said. “I think this was a really fun event to put on, and I hope that it can be continued in the future! It would be super cool to come back as an alumni and see this sort of thing still happening!”


Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at