Which came first: Brad Pitt or lasers?

I won’t answer just yet but have selected the title of this blog to depict the quirky and inquisitive nature of my first few weeks at Churchill College. The question itself was posed to all quiz-goers of a recent Zoom trivia night held by our graduate student union, the MCR. While the category was particularly engaging to our household team of physics and neuroscience students, juxtaposing other trivia like Betty White and penicillin, we quickly spiraled into defeat by picking both Brad Pitt and penicillin. What strikes me as special about the Cambridge experience so far is that there is ample opportunity to build community by engaging in your own intellectual interests and branching out by attending some of these more creative events offered during Freshers week.

My goal for this year is to make it one of personal growth, from how I approach research as a physicist, to how I engage with the world and my community as an individual. As put by the Chair of the Physics department on induction day, a graduate degree is all about “retraining your brain.” So far, I’ve been working to expand my knowledge of magnetism in materials by reading lots of papers, from basic mathematical models (e.g. the Ising model) to synthesis and characterization. After a couple week fall-out from three COVID cases in the department, our labs have reopened with heightened safety protocols, where the perspective is to treat COVID as another hazard that mandates its own risk assessment. 

Today, I got to start my first chemical synthesis in lab- physicist style- where I mixed three powders together and have placed them in an oven to start/speed up the reaction. Since the MPhil is very open-ended (we only have to produce a thesis and pass an oral exam), there is incredible freedom to design your research project. In addition to synthesizing magnetic materials and studying their properties experimentally at low temperatures and high magnetic fields, I intend to study their quantum effects computationally using the high-performance computing system at Cambridge, which was surprisingly accessible! I am also relishing the opportunity to audit a number of classes relevant to my research, including Quantum Condensed Matter Physics, while attending seminars and international conferences (via Zoom) by experts in the field.

These past couple of weeks have also presented my first foray into the joys of rowing! Many of the Churchill scholars in the cohort joined in trying out rowing for a day during Freshers week. I was surprised at first by the level of hand-eye coordination required, but each week our crews are reaching better timing and rhythm. The 7am practices have made me nostalgic for high school cross country morning practice and have offered some gorgeous bike rides to Jesus Green. Jasmine and I are now assigned to the same boat and are hopeful for a potential tournament in late November! 

I feel very grateful for the large amount of social interaction that being a Churchill Scholar has provided so far given the current context; from Freshers events in the college community, to cohort outings and dinners, to my basic German class online. I am not sure this would be possible without the asymptomatic testing that the university is conducting. However, it seems that this testing setup does have the potential to place the heavy burden of lockdown on individuals. Let’s protect each other- wear a mask/maintain social distancing, keep calm, and soldier on!

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