Humans of Harker: Putting the pieces together

Utkarsh Priyam questions deeply and explores limitlessly

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Nilisha Baid

“I find it more important to actually use your intelligence than to just be intelligent, so starting my own school to teach math taught me a lot about the way I approach [the subject]. I’m always trying to adapt my own skills as my students come up with interesting ways to solve different types of problems, so I hope that I’m remembered not necessarily as someone who was only smart, but more for the way that I used that intelligence to help people and create new things,” Utkarsh Priyam (12) said.

Ask anyone what they think of Utkarsh Priyam (12), and “smart” is undoubtedly the first word that comes to mind. A few minutes of conversation reveal that his talents lie far beyond his intelligence, though — more than anything, Utkarsh is a problem solver.

Since Utkarsh was young, he’s been a fan of puzzles. After adopting his mother’s love of mystery novels, he found himself methodically approaching the problems in the books to figure out the mystery. Though obviously immersed in the action, it was the problem solving elements that kept him engaged.

“In a math problem, you’re working with a number and trying to find the specific value that answers some part of the question,” Utkarsh said. “With mysteries, you’re trying to answer a given question, such as ‘who is the killer?’ or ‘who took the stolen object?’ The objective is to deduce what other information you can figure out to help you solve the problem [in both situations], and that’s so interesting to me.”

His affinity for solving mysteries immediately complemented his love of math. After deciding on a whim to participate in the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) in seventh grade, Utkarsh discovered his aptitude for the subject.

“I didn’t really know what to expect, but while taking the contest I realized that I had a knack for finding the solutions to these problems relatively quickly,” Utkarsh said. “My experience with problem solving through the puzzle games and all played a big part in drawing me in[to the subject] and further cemented my interest in this type of problem solving.”

Five years later, Utkarsh approaches math with an unprecedented degree of comfort and mastery. As co-president of Math Club, a contributor to the problem writing committees for various math contests, and a regular participant in both individual and group math competitions, Utkarsh utilizes his experiences to both collaborate with others and pass on his own skills.

Recently, he’s taken this even further by starting his own school to teach math to younger students. Offering free classes in a camp-like setting, Utkarsh teaches his students various mathematical concepts, but focuses primarily on problem solving strategies. Though the school first began as a way for him to spread his love of competitive math to those starting out, he was surprised by its immediate success and its impact on himself.

“I find it more important to use your intelligence than to just be intelligent, so starting my own school to teach math taught me a lot about the way I approach [the subject],” Utkarsh said. “I’m always trying to adapt my own skills as my students come up with ways to solve different types of problems, so I hope that I’m remembered not necessarily as someone who was only smart, but more for the way I used that intelligence to help people.”
Close friend Shray Alag (12) admires Utkarsh’s dedication to helping others discover concepts as deeply as he does on his own.

“His curiosity is almost a trademark of my friendship with him,” Shray said. “He’s so driven and always willing to expand further on any idea that he has, but I’ve also noticed how helpful he is, and how he’ll always go out of his way to help you with something, even if it doesn’t give him an immediate gain. That sort of insane commitment is something that you can only expect from him.”

Utkarsh’s academic curiosity also spans beyond the realm of math, as he’s taken to exploring the various applications of computer science. Drawing on his experience from math, he found computer science extremely intuitive. After taking a neural networks class in his junior year, he wanted to expand on his knowledge of AlphaZero software and chess to create his own “Chess AI.”

“It’s an ongoing project, but it’s something that I never previously thought I could accomplish. Learning to program opened up a lot of doors for me, but it’s mostly been fun for me to see the game evolve as I learn new skills,” Utkarsh said.

Close friend Aditya Singhvi (12) especially appreciates Utkarsh’s enthusiasm and ability to unrestrictedly tackle new ideas.

“When I first met him, we were in eighth grade, and since then he’s always been the smartest one, but also the one that helps everyone else,” Aditya said. “In tenth grade, I remember we went super overboard and coded eight or nine games in one weekend, and throughout high school, I know he’s tackled several other projects just for fun. That’s probably what’s most admirable about him — he sees a problem and dives right in.”

Apart from pursuing his curiosities, Utkarsh finds it most important to remain open-minded while achieving at the highest level possible.

“I have this ideal for perfection, so whenever I try to take up any task, I put as much effort into it as I can and I try to take it to the highest level of perfection,” Utkarsh said. “Both of my parents are engineers, so that played a big part in my interests in math and computer science, but at the end of the day, I’m glad to have always been pushed to be the best version of myself.”

Upper school mathematics teacher Dr. Anu Aiyer, who taught Utkarsh in several math classes and advises him in Math Club, has proudly observed his growth, both in his abilities and his confidence over the years. She especially values his ability to make interdisciplinary connections, and the unique love he has for the subjects he pursues.

“Utkarsh’s love of learning is one of his most important traits. He has this unique ability to see connections between various topics, and he always brings that into play when we’re looking at a problem,” Dr. Aiyer said. “I hope he continues to have that joy in learning and pursuing math, because I’ve realized that when something sparks his interest, he keeps at it for a very long time. The ability to absorb information while keeping up that willing curiosity will take him very far.”