A Very Small Fish in a Very Big Pond

The mugginess presses you down and wraps you up, like the blankets your mother used when you were sick. You didn’t want them, but hey, you don’t have much choice! Outside, the air tastes vaguely of sweat and ozone, of too many researchers bundled up together close to very, very carefully tuned instruments. This is the University of Science and Technology of China – Shanghai Institute for Advanced Studies Branch, and this is my home for the next two weeks.


My new cubicle, and my ID badge lunch card (they don’t have ID badges here huehuehue)

I am so excited to be at USTC-SIAS (Such a mouthful!) for the next two weeks, working with professors and graduate students on quantum information and ultracold atoms! There’s such a large world of physics out there, and for the time being, I get to be a small cog in this large scientific apparatus. But when I say small, what I really mean is tiny. Speck-like. Miniscule. Microscopic. Unnoticeable. See, the Shanghai Institute for Advanced Studies is really a graduate school for the USTC, which is already China’s premier science/engineering school. Everyone here is in their second year of their PhD or above! My high school knowledge doesn’t even compare – perhaps the only thing I might be better at than some of these people is my English, but seeing that there are also exchange students from Germany and Canada, I doubt even that is true.

Still, I’m resolute to not let my limited knowledge restrict me from helping and learning. Luckily, through Interlake High School (and yes, the IB programme… ugh), I’m fairly adapt at researching and reading papers that are above my skill level, and slowly wrestling each topic into submission. So yesterday, I read a 200-page thesis by a MIT PhD student and proceeded to study Linear Algebra for 3 hours, just to get myself up to the baseline level required of even the lab grunts here.

Note that item number 1 is: Learn Linalg

Note that item number 1 is: Learn Linalg

It’s tough work, but so very enjoyable at the same time. I can truly understand what I am capable of when I am not able to keep up. I learn where my boundaries are, where my shortfallings are, and – very importantly – where my strengths lie.

Of course, I’m not alone here. How I got here is a story for another day, but right now, I’m working under Professor Zhao, a theorist and experimentalist working with ultracold atoms and mixing fermionic-bosonic atoms. (I haven’t signed a NDA or anything, but I suppose that the secrecy here is rather high, so I’ll leave out all of the details :D ) Working with me is Yaxiong Liu, a 2nd year PhD student who is brilliant and can speak English fairly well too. I’m sorry that he just got a High School student dumped on him to babysit, but I’m trying to learn to be competent ASAP!

Yesterday, after the lab tour, I essentially sat in the Graduate Student Office with 40 other students until 10pm, hacking away at gaining personal understanding and also on an algorithm program that I am working towards. These people here don’t really seem to sleep at night, working far later than any students I have seen in high school. But, as I’ve also learned in high school, late nights usually mean late mornings, and now I’m taking advantage of an empty office at 7AM to write this blog post :) I hope to be able to follow that pattern of early sleeping and early waking, so that I can have some time to reflect every morning of what I’ve learned and what I want to do. It’s a quiet and meditative time, something that I’ve really wanted to do for a while.

Better get started – the new day awaits!

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