Yangyang Cheng is a physicist based in the US. Apart from her scientific research in the field of experimental particle physics, she is also a columnist who discusses social and culture issues in international publications like the New York Times.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kr: Do you reject the use of “success” or “failure” in defining people or things?
YC: Yes. I’ll give the example of Pan Jianwei, China’s preeminent quantum scientist. He has won so many national and international awards. He’s also an alumni of my alma mater, USTC.
He said that when he was an undergraduate, his grades were mediocre. In particular, he almost failed his first quantum physics test. While he did study using the textbook and problem sets, he found himself very much intrigued by the science behind these existing well-solved, well-defined problems. So he spent a lot of time thinking, overthinking and did badly on the test day itself. He almost failed the test. However, because he possessed that “wrong” curiosity and drive, which was problematic for passing a test, he became an accomplished scientist later on through these very same qualities. I think it’s critical to understand, original research thrives on curiosity and drive.
Therefore, doing original research in this field versus being good at test-taking (with pre-defined formulas) – are two different things. I really don’t think there is such a thing as failing in doing original research.
I actually don’t like using the terms “success” or “failure” to define original research. I think it’s a matter of whether or not it’s fulfilling and intellectual. Fulfilling to the person conducting it and intellectually meaningful to the people who benefit from it. The nature of original research is, in a sense, uncharted territory. So one should expect to be surprised. If everything worked out exactly as one had imagined, then probably something is very wrong.
Kr: What were your thoughts when entering this profession? Did your parents support your decision?
YC: While my mother pushed me towards academic excellence, she never felt I should build a career around physics. In fact, I remember this particular incident clearly.
I was sitting on the bus with my mother, and we saw my senior from school. She was completing her Master’s degree in physics but firmly decided not to pursue a PhD. She said her decision was not related to whether or not she’s interested in physics, but the fact that people like us are not talented enough for such a career. Even with that level of knowledge and skill, she felt that girls would not make it big in this field. My mother told me in Chinese, to “be like this big sister, study hard and build a career wisely.”
I believe my mother wanted me to become a high school English teacher or at least work towards a career deemed “suitable” for a woman. And that’s something I felt sad about.
Still today, so many people put aside their true aspirations because of society’s expectations and worse, their own internalized misogyny. It’s tragic in some ways, that my physics career was not encouraged or supported by my immediate family.
However, the lack of support also liberated me because I no longer wanted to seek external approval. I was only seeking something that comes from within – faith that this profession is worthwhile enough for me to pursue. As we go along, I really hope to create and nurture an environment that is welcoming to students of all backgrounds and identities and experiences. I hope that scientific education becomes more inclusive, with opportunities for everyone to thrive.
Kr: Do you have any advice for young people, especially those who are keen to pursue a career in scientific research?
YC: Once again, it’s important to understand that the skill sets used for taking an exam, are to a large extent, quite different from the skillsets used for original scientific research. So in terms of pursuing a career, it’s about curiosity. It’s about whether or not one has questions that desperately need to be answered. It’s about the drive to learn more as well. Curiosity and drive are the most important criteria for becoming a scientist.
Nobody knows how to code or how to do a particular math problem or how a particle behaves right from the start. The technical aspects can always be learned later. But without interest in how the world works, being a scientist would be absolute torture.
This relates back to the earlier anecdote I mentioned, right? Yes, his inability to do well in the test was the same ability that made him a wonderful research scientist.
We know how little kids are always curious. In some sense, we’ve lost that over time. Lack of curiosity is a societal manufactured condition, not an innate condition. When people become entrenched in this idea of elitism and how some jobs are better than others, we forget the value of scientific research and innovations, which lead to better outcomes for society. We forget the importance of curiosity and intellectual fulfillment. I guess the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that these forms of work contribute to the infrastructure of society, and we should respect that.
Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series. All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee, and not KrASIA’s. If you’d like to contribute as a writer or nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can email us at [email protected].