Article

Road Not Taken

None
  • Dasu
  • 21 Feb, 2020

My Physics Journey

 Dr. Sridhara Dasu

Chair, Department of Physics 

University of Wisconsin Madison

February 20, 2020

 

Should I train to be an engineer or a doctor? In the India of ‘70s, that was the question one needed to answer upon completing high school in “first class.” Conforming to societal norms was rewarded and counterculture was frowned upon. The flailing economic conditions of the failing public sector led to intense competition. Luxury to pursue one’s interests in less financially rewarding areas was often not supported, let alone encouraged. In that environment, I was lucky to have grown up in a household where there was no micromanaging of educational choices. I picked physics because I did worst in that subject in my exams, and there was most to learn!

 

Always interested in how everything worked, I focused on fundamental understanding, rather than on getting those last few marks by doing the problems right. Staying out of the mainstream pursuits, I had the time and energy to get to the core matter. When learning about diodes and transistors, I distinctly remember using Feynman’s Lectures rather than the standard electronics textbooks of the day. Basic understanding of devices using quantum mechanics appealed to my taste far more than the practical ability to calculate the output voltages of a transistor circuit including all the stray capacitances.

 

Not saddled by the intense competition in the more popular disciplines, I had the spare time to read beyond what was prescribed, enjoy trivial pursuits, take long walks, and handle life as it presented itself. Unencumbered pursuit of my interests led me to graduate school in physics at the University of Rochester and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Persistence and focus on the long haul allowed me to co-lead the University of Wisconsin team in one of the grandest scientific endeavors undertaken by mankind – the Large Hadron Collider.

 

Career choices? Well, just don’t make them. Rest assured that doing your very best in the field of your choice will take you far.  Consider fields like “data science” or “machine learning” – these did not exist some years ago but are at the top of the list for many aspiring scientists these days. Just a few years ago biotechnology took off. When my friends in high school were considering college, they never heard of Information Technology as a career, but many of them are working in that field now, thanks to the web taking over the economy. Perhaps, fields like psychology and sociology are going to play an important role as we develop robots, which need to interact with humans and society comfortably. Innovation is undoubtedly going to change the future of work, so basing the choice of a college study program on current job prospects is unwise. Enjoy the process of your education and your passions. Liberal arts education at undergraduate level, and graduate studies where your interests drive you to, is what I would recommend to one and all.

 

In closing, I will point you to the varied paths taken by my students who studied particle physics, which is as esoteric a science as it can get. While there are several undergraduate and graduate students who chose to continue to pursue particle physics, training to become faculty at research universities, there are others who found fulfillment in other paths. One of my Ph.D. students decided to pursue medical technology using her experience with particle detector technology and instrumentation, another is a product manager developing future communication instruments, and a third is a data scientist analyzing social web sites. These students were able to easily transfer the analytical thinking and technical skills developed in the course of their particle physics research to other disciplines.

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