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.
KrASIA (Kr): Why did you become a physicist, and why did you choose this particular discipline within physics?
Yangyang Cheng (YC): I grew up in a province in China where people tend to believe that upward mobility is only possible through academic excellence. In particular, there was a certain prestige attached to scientific disciplines, as compared to the humanities. More resources and opportunities were allocated to those studying the sciences. For someone without familial resources or financial backing, I knew from a pretty young age that I’d go into the science field.
Of the science subjects available, I didn’t like biology for all the memorization required, and mathematics was too abstract, so I liked physics the most.
Currently, I specialize in collider physics which is a subset of experimental particle physics. My interest in this particular discipline was sparked in college.
I attended the University of Science Technology of China (USTC). The curriculum is set up such that at the end of one’s second year, one will choose a sub-specialization. We had professors from different specializations come to give us presentations and basically sell their discipline to us. For some reason, I could remember the professor who taught me thermodynamics very well. His presentation on experimental particle physics, also known as high energy physics, was absolutely riveting.
He mentioned that this discipline would entail research on the most fundamental questions of the universe – where the universe came from and where it is going. He showed us images of the gigantic accelerators. So let’s picture a circular accelerator, which accelerates particles and allows them to collide. We build particle detectors, something like an onion that has many layers around it. The collision of particles happens at the center, and a particle flies out, traversing the different layers of the detector, leaving behind information. As scientific researchers, we collect information from various layers of the detector, connect the dots, and reconstruct the particle and study its properties. It was so fascinating when I heard about it, it felt pure in almost a romantic way.
The other point was the nature of the collaboration. The professor told us this is an experiment built literally at the Swiss-French border. There would be dozens of countries, hundreds of institutions, and thousands of scientists working on the same experiment. Now that amazed me. How could so many people from different cultural and political backgrounds come together to work on something so abstract yet beautiful? That one lecture sold me on experimental particle physics.
The best part is, the longer I’ve been in physics, the more I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s common for people to lose their interest in something, or find that the subject doesn’t live up to the hype they expect. But for me, I feel that I’ve been fortunate because the more I work on research, the more I’m able to appreciate it.
Kr: Have you ever hit a low point in your journey? And how did you break through it?
YC: I did struggle with my scientific career in the second to the third year of graduate school. At that point, I had finished all the course requirements, so I joined a lab as a full-time research assistant. Essentially, I was doing research all the time.
I couldn’t get used to the lifestyle initially. I was very prepared to study and take exams but without a structured curriculum and timetable, my time became entirely my own to manage. Also, the onus fell on me to think about original topics for my PhD thesis down the road. While I tried to cope with the stress and have a life outside of work, I got rather distracted.
I had just turned 21, given that I started school early. And I was full of ideas, going to bars and parties quite a lot. It just felt like something so new and fascinating, and I wanted to explore life. In that sense, I did not manage time well or prioritize my research for some months. In retrospect, I don’t particularly blame myself for it – it was like an itch to scratch, but I quickly got bored and my priorities returned. In fact, the whole period of partying helped me to understand what actually interests me and sustains me. Like I mentioned earlier, the thing about physics is that the longer I do it, the more focused and intrigued I am. I actually find so much intellectual fulfillment in the work I do.
In the end, I did find the project I was interested in and started devoting more time to it. I made progress and saw myself learning. I was growing as a scientist, and I’m still growing now.
Kr: Have you always been good at physics? And do you think academic excellence is the key to success as a physicist?
YC: I was selected for Science Olympiad training in my province. For most people, getting into the program translated to being extremely intelligent, but I never felt that way. I personally felt that my classmates weren’t all geniuses either, mostly we were just very focused and hardworking. It was akin to an athlete training for the Olympics.
In fact, I’ve been in physics for so long and I’ve not met the fictional “genius” that we see on the big screen. I think different people study in different ways and approach a piece of knowledge differently. Some people are faster than others in grasping concepts, but then they may not be as fast in terms of research studies, and so on. So I’ve not met a perfect scientist who blows me away with intellect.
This is an interesting question you’ve asked. I personally find it a harmful misconception that science in general is something that one needs innate talent to do. Science takes curiosity. It takes perseverance. And it takes resources or paid support.
But there’s no definition of success or failure in physics, or general scientific research.
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].