People who knew Reed Oei often described him as a star.
“Reed was the most determined person I ever met,” said Christopher Settles, a frequent collaborator of Reed’s. Phillipp Hieronymi, former director of the Illinois Geometry Lab, described Reed as “a brilliant and exceptional student and researcher.”
Yet somehow, simply calling Reed a star feels like a cosmic understatement. From the moment he stepped on UIUC’s campus, Reed was working at the clip of a seasoned researcher. He joined the Illinois Geometry Lab to work on research projects with mathematics faculty and fellow undergraduate students. By the time he began his sophomore year undergraduate coursework, he had already been offered a summer internship and was working toward publishing a paper. Before he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science, he had authored or co-authored a total of nine papers. In 2021, the National Computing Research Association named him a Top 10 Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher for 2021. The National Science Foundation had awarded him a Graduate Research Fellowship, which allowed him to attend any PhD program in mathematics of his choosing, completely funded.
Reed was well on his way to fulfilling his dream of becoming a university professor. But tragically, on April 15, 2022, Reed passed away after a year-long battle with bile duct cancer. His passing was a tremendous blow not only to his friends and family, but also to the mathematics community at large. Hieronymi, who worked with more than fifty undergraduate students on research projects during his tenure at UIUC, recalled Reed as one of the most dedicated students he ever worked with. “I worked with him over several years and we even wrote papers together,” said Hieronymi. “He had an outstanding career in front of him, and our research community will miss the contribution Reed could have made.”
Reed’s determination and curiosity about the world was apparent even in childhood. Lori Jean, Reed’s mother, perhaps put it best: “If Reed was interested in something,” she says, “his focus was intense and unswerving.” As an example, she cited the moment she noticed Reed’s affinity for numbers taking shape. When he was three years old, he was introduced to number rolls at his Montessori school. Number rolls are a common activity that help reinforce the concept of the base-10 number system by constructing a strip of numbers on paper, writing out each number in sequence. Number rolls can continue for as long as students maintain interest in building them. Reed’s number roll went to 664.
This trait followed Reed throughout elementary and high school and as he began to pursue his academic career. He could not be coaxed into doing things he did not find inherently interesting, which perhaps explains why he excelled at the things he did choose to pursue. In high school, he was a key member of the Quiz Bowl team, contributing to their laudable winning streak; he was a highly ranked tennis player; several of his peers commented on Reed’s impeccable fashion sense; and he was an exceptional cook. “His risotto was worthy of a Michelin star,” said Lori.
Reed also enjoyed learning languages, studying Latin and French in addition to myriad programming languages—Haskell, Python, and Prolog. He helped develop a new computer programming language called Psamathe, which he and his collaborators hoped would reduce vulnerabilities in smart contracts (tools used in the sale and transfer of digital assets).
Though Reed’s talent in computer science and mathematics is undeniable, those who were close to him remember him for so much more. In the wake of his death, friends, family, and former instructors flooded Reed’s memorial site not only with stories of how brilliant he was, but also how generous he was, constantly sharing his time, energy, and knowledge. As Reed’s peer Pradyumna Shome put it, “He was the consummate intellectual, passionate about producing great work in both mathematics and computer science, and teaching others all that he knew.”
During his time at Illinois, Reed frequently hosted workshops teaching fellow UIUC students. By all accounts, these workshops were pivotal to the overall success of many students. “Reed was the reason I became interested in formal methods,” John Wang wrote on Reed’s memorial board. “If he wasn’t there, my undergrad would have been a lot different.” Josh Byster, recent graduate in mathematics and computer science, noted on behalf of his peers: “[Reed] was extremely skilled when it came to any and all of the material we discussed, but was so humble in sharing his knowledge with us when we were having difficulty. We are all grateful for his extremely kind demeanor and positive nature as he helped us get through very challenging material.”
Several tributes to Reed acknowledged how much he loved sharing his passion for learning. “He wanted to become a university professor to teach and do academic research,” said Charles Oei, Reed’s father. Reed seemed to take every opportunity to prepare for this type of career. In addition to leading workshops and participating in multiple research projects, Reed was also active on online forums, answering hundreds of questions across multiple platforms. Many answers were practical, related to mathematics and computer science problems, but several were philosophical in nature. In a particularly compelling response, Reed talked through his impressions of various works of art, noting what he found pleasing about each of them. His writing evokes authority and clarity, a feat itself. But perhaps even more impressive is the charity in his tone. He answers earnestly while simultaneously considering the audience outside the question-poser, exactly what one might expect of a university professor.
“Reed had so much to teach about mathematics, about his interests, about how to live life well,” said Lori.
To help carry out their son’s mission, Lori and Charles—with the help of other family members—have established two academic scholarships in Reed’s name, one at Reed’s high school in Indiana; the other at UIUC. The Reed A. Oei Scholarship Fund at UIUC will support scholarships for undergraduate math majors interested in research. “This seemed the best way to keep his legacy alive,” said Charles.
Settles, who described preparing for a math competition with Reed as one of the most exciting times in his academic career, was pleased by the news: “I am happy to hear Reed being associated with a scholarship fund.” Individuals who have contributed to the fund say they hope to honor Reed’s memory through their gifts and help promising young students studying in areas he was passionate about.