The pandemic has proven to be a challenging time for everyone, but it has also brought opportunities for creativity. While quarantined at the start of the pandemic and unable to attend school, Westside High School senior Andrew Li received an email from his physics teacher about a global math and science competition called The Breakthrough Junior Challenge. A natural math enthusiast, Li decided to enter the competition and was a finalist among students from around the world for his innovative video submission titled “Some Infinities are Bigger than Other Infinities.”
Edge: Why did you decide to enter the competition?
Li: I had a bunch of time on my hands since we were in quarantine, so I thought it would be a good opportunity. I love watching math and science educational videos on YouTube, so it seemed perfect. No specialized knowledge was required, just three minutes and the ability to experiment.
Edge: How did you come up with your idea?
Li: I took a class at UNO in abstract mathematics, theory, and functions. My professor talked about different sizes of infinity and how when we count, it’s just paring up things. That was interesting to me.
Edge: How did you go about creating your video submission?
Li: I started by watching a lot of videos on similar topics, but most were way longer than the 3 minutes allowed for the competition. I also read blogs from previous contest winners on the process they went through. I started scripting my video, and then one afternoon I borrowed a tripod from a friend, set up my phone, and filmed it. Editing it was the most time-consuming part.
Edge: What programs did you use for the graphics?
Li: I used Adobe programs. I made some clipart in Illustrator, and for the rest of the graphics I used After Effects. I had some experience in it, but this helped me further that experience.
Edge: How long did it take you to complete the video?
Li: From initial idea to final product was about a month. There were a few rough patches in learning the software, but I made it through. The videos were due on June 25th, and I submitted it on June 24th because I had some last-minute changes.
Edge: What was your reaction when you found out you were a finalist?
Li: It was before they sent the email. I was scrolling the web site and saw my video. I ran downstairs and told my mom. It was very cool. There were a lot of people on the judging panel I look up to, and it was crazy to have them judge my video.
Edge: Besides your interest in math, what other activities are you involved in?
Li: I am in a lot of music activities—marching band, concert and jazz band, other ensembles, and Quiz Bowl. I’m pretty narrow focused on academics and arts. I play the alto saxophone and got into jazz playing two years ago. It’s where I’ve found my element.
Edge: What do you like to do during your free time?
Li: I enjoy playing my sax and listening to music from a lot of different genres—hip hop, funk, and R&B. I like transcribing music. I also like hanging out with my friends.
Edge: Where do you plan to attend college?
Li: I’m waiting to hear back from a few schools, including MIT I’m thinking of a double major in math and computer science. I love building and testing software. MIT also has a good music ensemble program.
Edge: What do you think you want to do for a living?
Li: Maybe work for a startup and then move into research or academia. I gravitate toward teaching, and my talent is that I’m a fast learner, so I can reserve time to think about how to teach things so that others can understand it. Math isn’t the rote memorization we learn in school. It should be an innate human desire to think about patterns, especially with numbers, and make it more exploratory. It’s great to see all the different ways people approach problems. It shows the beauty of mathematics. I want to get the message out that math is fun!
To see Andrew Li’s video, visit