- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Her most prized possession stands 15 inches tall with yellow, scaly skin and bright orange twig-like feet. It leans against a 2½-foot trophy for first place in geometry.

The rubber chicken stands out among the plethora of medals, plaques and trophies lining the bookshelves in the small study room in Ellen Li’s Gainesville home that holds the tangible evidence of her excellence in mathematics.

At the Math Prize for Girls competition held in September at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the 17-year-old Buchholz High School senior placed 10th out of 293 participants in tests her coach called “insanely hard.”

“She is at the very top of the nation,” Will Frazer, coach of the nine-time national champion Buchholz High School Math Team, told The Sun.

For all of her honors, however, the scrawny bird stands out. They are awarded at the Mu Alpha Theta State Convention to the top 10 competitors of each division. The larger the size, the better the performance and she has won a rubber chicken every year for the last four.


Ellen’s affinity for math began early. She has been in math competitions since the fourth grade and has been ranked nationally in recent years.

But the various framed photos in her home show that her life is more than math. Here is a young Ellen in ballet shoes, karate uniform and dainty ice-skating outfits. In some photos, she holds a violin.

“I like to challenge myself,” she said, reminiscing about learning complex number theory as a 13-year-old.

And she continued to challenge herself when she moved to Gainesville five years ago and joined the Buchholz team as an eighth grader.

Now a senior, she competes alongside 60 other Buchholz students, 24 of whom are girls. With the team participating in over 40 events, she often finds herself one of the few girls competing.

“Ellen is the best female I have ever taught and one of the top 10 of any gender,” Frazer said. “She works very hard and is extremely competitive.”

And behind this competitive student is passion.

Geometry books are stacked in the bookshelf under her middle school trophies. The pages are worn, but there are no tears. These are the books that she’s owned for years; these are the books she turns to for practice.

“Geometry is my favorite,” Ellen said. “One of the beautiful aspects of mathematics is the proofs part,” she said about redoing the same practice problems.


Sharing space in Ellen’s heart with high-level mathematics is her love of music. Sheet music is scattered among her math books and classical music holds prime space on her iPod.

“She plays almost every day,” her mother Ying Zhang said, as she sat by their sleek black piano in their living room.

Her diligent practice helped her win the Florida State Music Teachers Association concerto competition this fall.

But to her piano isn’t about competition, it’s about the love of the art.

Ellen shares this love once a month when she plays piano in the lobby of the cancer unit at UF Health Shands Hospital.

“It’s cool talking about music with the patients,” she said. “I want music to not just be for my own personal enjoyment, and by playing at a hospital you help better someone else’s life.”

Playing since she was 5, the first-generation Chinese-American teenager also teaches piano.

“The money that she earns (teaching) she uses to sponsor a child in China,” her mother added proudly.

Both Ellen and her mother help underprivileged sisters in China who are in financial need. They sponsor the girls all the way through college.

“I saw my mom doing it and, I don’t know, I just want someone from there to have similar opportunities,” Ellen said.


As a math lover, she tries to share its beauty with others.

“We do more than just math on the team,” Frazer said. “A lot of our outreach is about building the future, getting them excited about math.”

Frazer volunteered his team to help with a math league project started by Superintendent Owen Roberts in 2013. The team spearheads the outreach program that brings competitive math to lower socioeconomic elementary and middle schools.

The team members create, score and post results for 1,500 tests. Ellen, as president of the math team, helps organize this.

The math league, along with after-school tutoring and summer camps that the Buchholz team provides, is under Ellen’s leadership.

“She’s a central figure in this community for mathematics,” Frazer said.

“It’s really no big deal,” she said.

There is also the educational component of being a high school senior. Ellen is taking three Advanced Placement classes and is dual enrolled at UF for calculus 3 and a sets and logics course.

“The academic part of my life is really stressful,” she concedes. “My days are pretty busy and I juggle a bit.”

And with all of her efforts, Ellen hopes to attend MIT and study applied mathematics and computer science.

“I’m really interested in data analysis and big data,” she said. “I feel like data is one of the keys to technical advancement.”

As for now, Ellen remains at the top of her class.

“She’s really hardworking,” said Kim Nguyen, Ellen’s close friend and 16-year-old teammate. Together they are the dynamic-girl duo of the team.

“We shop together a lot,” Kim said, describing their free time in-between competitions. “We gotta play the gender role some way,” she jokes.

As a close friend for four years, Kim is sad to see Ellen graduate.

What they have together is the Mu Alpha Theta National Convention - their biggest event of the year.

“I think it won’t fall on graduation this year so I’ll actually be able to go to that,” Ellen said.

For Ellen, nationals are her graduation ceremony.

Each senior makes a goodbye speech to the team. This year it’s her turn.

“I’m going to miss Ellen,” Nguyen said. “She’s a great leader and an awesome friend.”

And Ellen is sad to go, too. She describes the math team as her second family.

“I’ve loved math ever since I knew what it was,” she said. “I’ve only grown to love it more.”


Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, https://www.gainesvillesun.com

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