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Five Questions with Akilan Sankaran, winner of the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize

By Aparna Paul

Akilan Sankaran_
Akilan Sankaran, a ninth grade student at Albuquerque Academy, won the Samueli Foundation Prize in the 2021 Broadcom MASTERS competition (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque Academy ninth grader, Akilan Sankaran loves walking the halls and beautiful campus of his school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a place that he says has afforded him many opportunities to learn about new concepts and ideas. One of the disciplines Akilan enjoys most is mathematics. He also loves physics and space science, and one day hopes to be an astrophysicist.

In the 2021 Broadcom MASTERS, Akilan won the Samueli Foundation Prize, which is the top $25,000 award, for his project on antiprime numbers. Notably, this was the first time in the 11-year history of the competition that the top prize was taken by a mathematician. In an interview, Akilan told NPR that “we use these numbers all the time in our daily lives without even thinking about it because we have a natural tendency to want to split things into smaller groups. For example, 60 is a highly divisible number, and we use it to divide time, as there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour.”

Akilan’s math project, which involved a computer program that he created, has implications and potential for accelerating apps such as Shazam, Pandora or other software programs.

We had a chance to catch up with Akilan. Let’s hear more from him below.

Which sci-fi advancement do you wish we had by now?

I wish we had skills like the Second Foundation members (a science-fiction novel written by Isaac Asimov, the last of the classic Foundation Series): using mathematical and psychological concepts to predict the future and even read each other’s minds! The fields of math and psychology are not prioritized enough in society nowadays; however, if we had this amazing advancement, then we could demonstrate the true power that these topics can unlock. Also, I often find it hard to be very decisive, but if I had the power of the Second Foundation’s mathematicians, it would be a lot easier to make decisions because I would be able to predict exactly what would happen after a certain decision.

Which scientist – alive or deceased – would you want to solve scientific mysteries with and why?

I’d love to solve mysteries with Richard Feynman. He was a fascinating scientist who really understood the scientific thinking process; furthermore, he was great at conveying his ideas to other people. I feel like many other scientists would be hard to work with since they were kind of introverted and quiet, but Feynman was as energetic and enthusiastic as I am right now! His personality is just like mine, and it would be fun, rewarding and entertaining to solve scientific mysteries with him.

Akilan Sankaran_BroadcomMASTERSSamueliFoundationPrize2021
Society for Science

What would you invent if you had all the resources in the world?

I would invent an artificial-intelligence-powered robot that would be trained to play the piano beautifully. The robot would first develop the technique to play fast piano pieces through extremely quick motor skills, which would require me to develop adequate touch sensitivity and nimbleness in the robot’s fingers. The robot would also attempt to convey emotion and style through its playing by listening to many other great piano performances. Finally, the robot would compose its own remarkably difficult and creative piano piece; then, it would play the piece better than any human possibly could!

Given that Broadcom MASTERS went virtual, what about your experience surprised you the most?

I was really surprised by how well I was able to get to know all the finalists! Through the hilarious Zoom Room Hangouts, the enjoyable evening activities, and the creative team bonding activities, we were able to eliminate the hundreds of miles that separated us: it felt like we were all in the same room. I’m still in touch with so many of the finalists, and we really enjoy chatting with each other about so many different topics, from AMC tests to making up schoolwork to baking and TikTok. It’s amazing!

What was your most favorite or memorable experience from virtual Broadcom MASTERS? And why?

By far, my favorite experience from the virtual Broadcom MASTERS were the team challenges, especially the challenge at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). I was able to establish such a great connection with my team that it felt like we were in the same class! I felt that we really had a blast during these challenges, and it didn’t even feel hard since we worked so well together. I was worried that this portion of the competition would be really stressful, but it was the exact opposite!