Senior's Love of Math and Computers Lands Her in Elite International Program

Charlotte Merchant '19 has immersed herself in theoretical computer science for several years, tackling complex computer concepts that most students don't encounter until their junior or senior year of college. "I just really like math. I wanted to find a topic that intersected with my interests in math and computer science, and that's where theoretical computer science comes in. It's the math behind everything."
If you don’t know much about theoretical computer science, it’s something that most of us take advantage of every day without ever knowing it. A simple Google search uses algorithms to return the best results, while checking out at Amazon.com incorporates cryptography to keep our information safe. And those are just the tip of the theoretical computer science iceberg.
 
At Hutchison, Merchant has taken AP Computer Science, along with the most rigorous math courses, all of which fueled her own independent study. “Hutchison has a really great math department,” Merchant said, “so I’m able to understand what I’m reading, because I’ve seen some of the same notation and concepts before in my math classes.” She added that most people don’t usually study theoretical computer science until their last years of an undergraduate degree. She’s also taught herself a number of programming languages, including Java, JavaScript, C, C++, HTML, CSS, Python, MATLAB, and Swift.
 
This past summer, Merchant applied and was accepted into the Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students (QCSYS) at the University of Waterloo in Canada. The ten-day program is highly competitive, accepting only 40 students from around the world.
 
“I wanted to see the research at the forefront of physics, computer science, and math,” Merchant said about why she applied. The program featured nine-hour days of lectures, practice exercises, experiments, and activities at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC).
 
“At the outset, the lectures and problem sets centered on the linear algebra, classical cryptography, and quantum mechanics topics required to understand the subsequent lectures,” Merchant said. “Experiments were performed to reinforce these concepts.”
 
Merchant said she found the lectures intellectually stimulating. “One of my favorite lecturers, Dr. Chris Ferrie, the author of Quantum Physics for Babies and other popular children’s books, impressed me with a series of proofs and exercises to demonstrate quantum computing.” She also met Dr. Raymond Laflamme, the founder and former director of the IQC, who worked as one of Stephen Hawking’s PhD students in the 1980s.
 
She was excited to meet with her peers from the around the world and exchange ideas. There were students from Canada, Pakistan, India, England, Poland, Greece, and the United States. The ten days featured several outings as well, including one to Niagara Falls.
 
In addition to her studies this summer, in the summer of 2017, as part of her work as one of Hutchison’s Science Research Fellows, Merchant worked with professors at the University of Memphis on projects in computational complexity and computational geometry. In order to help her understand these projects, she read her professor’s research papers and anything else she could find online. She wrote thousands of lines of code during that time and learned how to better organize what she presented to professors.
 
As for the future, Merchant is planning to study computer science in college, but she’s not sure whether it will take her on an academic or industry track after college. One thing she knows for sure, though… it will involve math.
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