Blackboard image with drawings and equations

Supportive action at a distance

account_circle By Patchen Barss
The 2021 graduating class of Perimeter’s master’s program reflect on their strange and inspiring year

While most people spent the past year learning to interact with others at a 2-metre distance, the 21 students enrolled in Perimeter’s master’s program were figuring out how to collaborate from their homes in 14 countries around the world.

Through sheer determination and adaptability, the members of the 2021 graduating class of Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) developed into an extraordinary community of emerging scientists.

“We were first isolated from the outside world by quarantine, and further isolated by having to spend so much time on our schoolwork, which no one around us in our daily lives could probably even understand,” said Kelly Wurtz in her valedictorian speech at last week’s online PSI graduation ceremony. “And so, to a large extent, our community was each other. My twenty fellow students became a large part of my support network.”

In a normal year, these students would have converged on Waterloo from Russia, China, Ireland, Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere, and spent a year in intense face-to-face collaborations with each other and with faculty from Perimeter and neighbouring universities. Instead, they worked mostly from their own bedrooms or offices, navigating multiple time zones, the vagaries of Zoom, Slack, and Discord, and the ambient stress of living through a pandemic.

As part of the graduation ceremony, each “PSIon” presented a recorded message looking back on their year. Their experiences differed greatly from previous cohorts, who could just grab a coffee at Perimeter’s Black Hole Bistro or gather around a chalkboard to game out a new theory. Instead, this group bonded through memes, games, discussions, and socializing — all carried out at a distance.

“We still managed to successfully go through this very rigorous program, learn some new and exciting physics and apply it to our research projects,” said Aizhan Akhmetzhanova in her message from her hometown of Qarağandy, Kazakhstan. “And we also managed to build connections with our classmates from all around the world, which is just as valuable.”

In message after message, the students talked about how they supported and inspired each other, as they explored the full breadth of modern theoretical physics, working on relativity, quantum field theory, condensed matter physics, string theory, cosmology, and more. Many also used their message as an opportunity to show off the local scenery, flora, and fauna, including images of Milan, Sao Paolo, Vancouver, and elsewhere, in their video farewells.

Many found it strange to have worked so closely, and formed such intense bonds, without ever having met in person.

“We already passed the long-distance relationship test,” said Yìlè Yīng, who is based in Wellington, New Zealand. “So I’m not worried about what our relationship will turn out to be after the end of this programme. I still hope one day we can all meet together in person and create more crazy memories.”

Perimeter faculty and staff who have worked with the master’s program for many years were impressed with how effectively it transitioned to virtual, distanced interactions. They gave much credit to the graduating students and to the PSI Lecturers and Fellows for making the year a success.

“They completed an extremely challenging program in a time of global crisis, all without ever coming to Perimeter,” says Rob Myers, the Institute’s Director. “They have had to balance academic challenges with the uncertainty that defined our day-to-day lives this year. I salute their determination, resilience, and strength.”

Even in a regular year, PSI is one of the most demanding, prestigious master’s programs anywhere in the world of physics. The 21 members of the 2021 graduating class were chosen out of more than 800 applicants. Eight PSIons will continue at Perimeter next year to pursue PhDs, while others will follow paths elsewhere as researchers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and more.

“They join more than a thousand young researchers who have been trained at Perimeter,” said Myers. “Our graduates follow many paths. Some carry on with theoretical physics. Others found companies, study cancer treatments, become innovators, and more. All of them carry the Perimeter spirit. Nobody captures that spirit better than this year’s graduates.”

About PI

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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