Figuring out physics with newfound friends

A group of 40 high school students from across the world explore the curiosities and possibilities of theoretical physics at Perimeter’s International Summer School for Young Physicists.

Attending Perimeter’s International Summer School for Young Physicists (ISSYP) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of the 40 students who attend each year.

The campers take a deep dive into modern theoretical physics, exploring topics such as quantum mechanics and special relativity, while also gaining firsthand exposure to areas of current research.

For Anwyn Woodyatt, who attended in 2017, ISSYP turned into a twice-in-a-lifetime experience – she enjoyed her time so much that she returned this year as a chaperone. “I wanted to make their experiences as good as mine,” said Woodyatt. “We’re all still in contact almost every day,” she said of her cohort. “It’s a big family.”

That experience seems universal among ISSYP attendees.

“I really enjoy being around people who share the same interest, because at school, most of the time you have people who want to drop physics as soon as they can,” noted Siena Castellon, a 15-year-old student who recently finished lower sixth form (the equivalent of grade 12) in the United Kingdom. “Here, it’s just amazing to be around people who are accepting of your passion for physics.”

Castellon knows a thing or two about the importance of a supportive and welcoming environment. At age 13, she created Quantum Leap, a mentoring website aimed at children with autism spectrum disorder and other learning differences. Castellon herself has Asperger’s syndrome, which she says has augmented her pursuit of physics.

“With Asperger’s, you can have special interests – little divisions that you’re really fascinated by. For me, that’s physics and math. It’s really helped me to have this interest.” The scientific community on a whole can benefit from being open to neurodiversity, she said. “If we can really harness that talent, we can really improve the community.”

Castellon and her fellow ISSYP participants, evenly split between male and female students, came from a broad range of backgrounds, but excitement for physics was the thread that tied them together. Half of the chosen students were Canadian; the others hailed from 16 other countries, including Argentina, India, Italy, Turkey, New Zealand, and the US.

Throughout the two-week program, social activities and field trips (including a visit to SNOLAB, a physics laboratory located two kilometres underground within an active mine in Sudbury, Ontario) are woven between lectures on core physics topics, keynotes from eminent physicists, and small-group mentoring sessions with researchers.

“The lectures are from a point where, regardless if you are in the 10th grade or the 12th grade or anything in between, you can understand them. We’re constantly surrounded by people who are willing to explain if we don’t,” said 19-year-old Gabby Habtezion, who recently finished high school in Sweden. “Even the research that’s considered difficult to grasp, they simplify things, but in a way that does justice to physics.”

Among the keynote lectures was a talk from Perimeter Institute Director Neil Turok. Before launching into an overview of all known physics, Turok announced that he would hand out signed copies of his book after the lecture, prompting a collective “woah!” and applause from the students.

“The universe is astonishingly simple on large scales, but also deeply puzzling,” Turok told the students. “We don’t quite understand the reasons for that simplicity.”

At the “Life as a Physicist Meet and Greet,” students met in small groups with faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students, where they had a chance to ask what life is like as a researcher. Questions ranged from the logistical (“How do you choose a school?”) to the more philosophical (“How do theory and experiment work together?”).

“How can you develop the ability to find the interesting problems within physics?” Habtezion asked at the table with Perimeter postdoctoral researcher Ravi Kunjwal. Kunjwal’s advice was simple: “Read as widely as possible. Be voracious in your reading, and the questions will come later. Your brain needs enough raw material to begin ruminating.”

During the second half of the program, students were given a taste of the research process by tackling a contemporary physics problem in small-group mentoring sessions led by Perimeter graduate students and postdocs. They presented their findings at a poster session, similar to those seen at scientific conferences, on the final day of the program.

“My favourite experience was the mentoring programs because we’re working with people who are actual researchers. They’re people at the forefront of their field. It’s a unique experience,” said 17-year-old Aydan Jiwani from Mississauga.

For Marin Schultz, a 17-year-old inventor from Lethbridge, Alberta, the theoretical bent to ISSYP was a welcome complement to the experimental tinkering that he’s been doing since he was old enough to play with Lego.

In the third grade, Schultz compared the behaviour of robotic nano-roaches with real-life hissing cockroaches for a science fair project, which ignited a passion for robotics and experimentation. At age 12, he hacked a “mind reading” toy and connected it to a primitive robotic hand, programming it such that the more you concentrated, the more the hand would close. Since then, Schultz has continued to make improvements on his designs, turning his room into a robotics lab.

“Obviously, we’re learning a lot of really cool physics,” he said of ISSYP. “But on top of that, these sessions have taught me new ways of thinking critically about ideas, and how to pursue the creation of a model for an idea that you get.”

Habtezion, who plans to take a gap year starting in the fall to do an engineering internship and run science outreach activities, says ISSYP has opened her up to the possibility of studying theoretical physics in the future.

“It wasn’t really an option before because I was scared of what that would look like,” she said. “With theoretical physics, you gain this whole skill set, so you don’t have to just be working in physics or academia. You can work in management, you can work in a lot of different areas. It’s more than just learning physical concepts. It’s also a way of thinking.”

- Stephanie Keating




About Perimeter Institute

Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement.

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“It’s just amazing to be around people who are accepting of your passion for physics.”

- Siena Castellon, ISSYP 2018