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Studying the universe a fulfilling pursuit

Update: May, 14/2015 - 15:50

A student of the Hanoi-Amsterdam High School rediscovered his passion for physics thanks to a novel teaching approach used by a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas. Now Nguyen Quang Thong is poised to pursue a doctorate in physics from Caltech. Thu Trang reports.

Inner Sanctum: You have received admission offers to pursue a doctorate from five famous universities. Which one did you choose, and why?

I have received admission offers to study for a doctorate in physics from Caltech, Columbia University, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, and University of Ilinois at Urbana-Champaign. The financial support from each school includes full tuition and a monthly stipend, which add up to a total value of approximately US$80,000 per year.

I chose Caltech because of its strong emphasis on fundamental physics research, as well as for the collaborative spirit present among different research areas, due to its relatively small size.

Inner Sanctum: Could you share your experience while applying for scholarships at these universities? Which part of the process did you find the most difficult, and how did you overcome it?

The application process was straightforward. However, I started preparing for it early in my undergraduate years. Admission committees look for applicants with a strong research background. The tricky part is that most summer research opportunities that are funded by the United States' National Science Foundation are exclusive for American citizens. So I focussed my search on research opportunities abroad, where they give equal opportunities to applicants from the world over, regardless of their nationalities.

During the summer of 2013, I received an offer from DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) to participate in an underground dark-matter-search project in Europe, called EURECA. The next summer, I joined a research laboratory at the University of Tokyo to work on the upgrade of Belle, which is the particle accelerator in Japan. These two programmes, along with the research I did at my home university, provided me with strong research experience and the great pleasure of taking part in the quest to understand the universe, which was extremely fulfilling.

Inner Sanctum: How did your family, teachers and friends help you with your studies? Who contributed the most?

Since my first year in high school, my parents gave me complete freedom to make all of my life decisions. I am still grateful for their trust.

During my tenure at the Hanoi-Amsterdam High School, I specialised in physics. Upon graduating, however, I lost interest in the subject and chose to study at the Ha Noi Architecture University. During my freshman year there, I had a full-ride scholarship for a four-year undergraduate course at the University of Texas, Dallas in the United States. I decided to take this opportunity to explore the world, to discover a new land, and to learn about a different culture, something that I always dreamed of.

I opted for Computer Engineering as my major, primarily due to the employment prospects it offered. In the second semester, I took up a course in physics with Professor Joseph Izen, who taught the subject with an entirely different approach, unlike the way I had been learning so far.

By not focusing on solving tricky problems, Prof Izen piqued our curiosity with many physics demonstrations. There were several "wow" moments when we saw unexpected phenomena and learned about the underlying theories of physics.

As part of our final exam, he took all the students to Six Flags, an amusement park in Texas. Each student was asked to bring along a device to record the acceleration while riding roller coasters and then write a 30-page report analyzing the data.

After taking his class, I realized that, deep down, I was still passionate about physics, and over the summer I thought about switching my major to the subject. My family was worried; they understood that scientists face a far more difficult journey, as opposed to the lucrative future that an engineering degree can offer. On the first day of my sophomore year, I told Prof Izen about my situation. He spoke with me for four hours, telling me about the joy of being a scientist and showing me different career choices that were available for physicists, not only in the field of scientific research, but in technology, medicine, and finance, as well.

The more I studied physics, the more thankful I was for my decision. Physics enchants me with its intrinsic beauty and elegant ideas, such as geometrical patterns and symmetry, which could answer the most fundamental questions of the universe. Research in physics also excites me, especially when I find indications in my data of what I was looking for, sometimes for years.

I am grateful to Prof Izen, not only for his inspiring lectures that revived my passion, but also for his tremendous help in my research; not to mention his efforts to improve my skills in scientific writing, public speaking, and communicating with lay people, which are crucial for a researcher.

Inner Sanctum: How is studying in foreign countries different from that in Viet Nam? What is your opinion about the differences?

When I first arrived in the US, I was impressed by the freedom students had to express their opinions in classrooms. The professors were not offended by students challenging their ideas; instead, they were happy to discuss different perspectives and willing to acknowledge their mistakes.

Vietnamese education, heavily influenced by Confucianism, still regards teachers' words as the absolute truth. In addition, general education in Viet Nam provides rigorous training in math and science, and is accessible to everyone at an affordable price.

Inner Sanctum: What about your extracurricular activities in Viet Nam and in the foreign countries? Which activities did you choose, and how did they affect your studies?

Since my first year in high school, I had been learning ballroom dance. It quickly became another passion, as it helped me enjoy music to its fullest and express emotions with my body. In the 11th grade, I won the silver medal in a municipal ballroom competition, in Ha Noi. In college, I chose ballroom dance as my main hobby. Recently, I won the first place in the Waltz and Tango categories at the Texas Challenge, which is a state competition in ballroom dancing.

I am also the Education Chair of VINCEF, an organisation for international students in Viet Nam at the University of Texas, Dallas. I created various platforms for alumni and students to share their experiences regarding academics, social life, and job opportunities, via either talk shows or blogs.

These extracurricular activities helped me refresh my mind after studying. — VNS

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