A Churchill Scholar with “a Math Mind”

By Ryan Yu '22 || Issue 148-22

Jamie Tucker-Foltz ’19 first discovered his interest in math as a child, in between school work and his favorite computer games. Photo courtesy of Jamie Tucker-Foltz '19.

To say that Jamie Tucker-Foltz ’19 is passionate is an understatement. Indeed, solving problems — especially quantitative ones — has always been a profound interest of his, whether it be something rigorously academic or a simple board game.

Now, as he graduates with his double major in math and computer science and years of research behind him, it is clear that Tucker-Foltz has immersed himself in these quantitative studies like no other. As friend Elizabeth Pratt ’22 put it, “[He’s] the product of a math mind.”

Learning Through Play
Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, Tucker-Foltz was introduced to math at a very young age, and it quickly became an immediate source of fascination for him. The structure of math problems reminded him of the various puzzles and games that he liked, especially in the analytical and logical way one had to go about solving them.

“I remember my parents explaining what algebra was to me when I was eight, and I was way into it,” he said. “I would say things like, ‘If dog equals three and teacup equals two, then what is dog minus teacup’ — things like that, like understanding the concept of a variable.”

On that front, he quickly got ahead of the curve academically, learning mathematical concepts years ahead of what was offered to his peers. With his parents’ support, he was often able to take classes online or at more senior schools — going to the local university while in high school, for example — to satisfy his voracious appetite for new knowledge.

Tucker-Foltz also actively engaged with this type of quantitative problem-solving outside of class. He learned the basics of computer programming over the course of his adolescence, using those skills to apply his creativity and design basic video games.

“I really liked hacking computer games in the sense of finding little program bugs that allow you to do different things,” he said. “One of my favorite things to do was computer games where you could design your own levels. There were several times where I’d find a programming bug and design a level where you have to exploit that bug to win.”

Particularly significant was an internship at a video game development company, Serenity Forge, in the summer between the junior and senior years of high school. According to Tucker-Foltz, that was his first formal introduction to computer science as another math-based field.

The emphasis on games isn’t surprising, considering his family’s fondness for games and his partiality to strategic board games. When discussing one of his favourite board games, RoboRally, he noted how his affection for it upon discovering the game in eighth grade portended his future interest in computers — the game requires players to simulate computers through simple programming.

Transitioning to Amherst
Like many high school seniors, Tucker-Foltz applied to several schools when deciding where to go for college. He ultimately chose Amherst, citing the school’s quality of teaching, open curriculum and small class sizes as the key reasons for his choice, as well as additional funding that was offered to him for academic excellence.

“In the end, it wasn’t even a hard choice. It was just looking for another school that would be a second school that I would also visit, and I couldn’t think of any,” he said. “They gave me this Schupf scholarship, which gave me $25,000 of research funding to use over my four years … so that was just the added bonus that made the decision really easy.”

However, his transition to college didn’t go quite as planned. It was the first time that he’d lived away from home, and settling in a new environment was initially jarring for him. “There was a lot to learn,” he said. “A lot of things were different. Every night, I was like, ‘Wow, I guess I’m going to be here for a while. I better get used to this.’”

Nevertheless, Tucker-Foltz eventually found grounding in his classes and his clubs. He quickly set out to explore the diverse set of activities available at Amherst, including those with which he wasn’t intimately familiar — according to him, the most “exotic” thing he tried was archery — as well as his lifelong hobbies of volleyball, juggling and, of course, board games. Over time, he came to serve as president of the juggling and traditional games clubs.

Apart from his extensive work in quantitative fields, Tucker-Foltz also partakes in non-academic interests like volleyball, board games and juggling. Photo courtesy of Jamie Tucker-Foltz '19.

The World of Academic Games
His first year here also saw Tucker-Foltz build the first real connections between his hobbies and his academics. Perhaps most pivotal to this endeavour was a pair of economics courses that he took — “Game Theory and Applications” and “Institutions and Governance,” both 400-level courses — which directly studied the strategic interactions that grounded the games with which he so loved to engage.

His interest piqued by these classes, he started looking for other avenues to explore game theory. Luckily, the funding from his Schupf scholarship proved useful.

“I was talking to my parents about how much I like game theory, and they were like, ‘Oh, you should go to a game theory conference!’ and I thought that sounded like such a silly idea,” he recalled. “But it turned out there was a huge game theory conference that was held only once every four years that was going to be that summer, so I asked [the school] … and they paid for me to go to Maastricht, Netherlands, for a week.”

If there was a pivotal moment in Tucker-Foltz’s college career, this conference was it. It was what he described as “a turning point” — something that propelled him to start exploring the academic side of his mathematical interests in a more concerted manner.

“It was the first time that I realized, ‘Whoa, there’s so much I don’t know out there.’ I remember, every night, I couldn’t go to sleep because I was just thinking about all the things I had seen that day in the conference,” he described. “It made me consider going to graduate school and go down an academic route, which I am going down now.”

Searching for Answers
Over the three years following the conference, Tucker-Foltz expanded his research, using his Schupf funding to continue attending conferences, participate in summer research — from which he helped develop and present two papers in theoretical computer science, one of which was professionally published — and further his personal research projects as well.

Professor of Economics Brian Baisa, a mentor to Tucker-Foltz, pointed to a paper that Tucker-Foltz wrote for his “Advanced Microeconomics” class. The paper proposed a mathematical mechanism that incentivizes the prevention of gerrymandering.

“The essay was a fantastic and really original piece of research, substantially better than work I would peer-review for top economics journals — and it was for an assignment that counted for 5 percent of the course grade,” Baisa said. “The proposed game was simple and intuitive and nifty in the way that would make any math geek smirk, and Jamie pursued the solution to this problem incredibly rapidly … I expect this paper to land in a top journal in economics, math or computer science.”

A Bright Future
The paper was ultimately accepted to and presented at the 29th International Conference on Game Theory, the third time Tucker-Foltz shared his research in a public setting. Motivated to try and publish his research in a journal, Tucker-Foltz then put his preprint of his paper in a public online repository.

The paper, as it turned out, was unknowingly critical for reasons beyond the contribution it represented to game theory, since Ariel Procaccia, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), happened upon it when it was published online. According to Tucker-Foltz, Procaccia liked the paper and encouraged him to apply to a computer science doctorate program at CMU. Tucker-Foltz will join that program in the fall of 2020.

Before attending CMU, however, he’ll be taking a brief detour to Cambridge University, where he’ll pursue a master’s degree in advanced computer science. He’ll be going across the waters as a recipient of the highly competitive Churchill Scholarship, which funds the year he’ll be spending in England and provides additional support in seminars and other amenities.

Even though Tucker-Foltz is leaving himself open to a number of different directions for his research and academic career, one thing is clear: he had and will have a monumental impact wherever he goes. In the words of Professor of Mathematics Harris Daniels, another of Tucker-Foltz’s mentors, “We can’t wait to see the amazing things that he accomplishes in his time after Amherst.”