June 9, 2021
Dean Olinto's husband, Sérgio Assad, composed a 21-part song in the spirit of "Alma Mater"
On Wednesday, June 9, the University of Chicago Physical Sciences Division held a virtual ceremony for the Spring 2021 Convocation to celebrate students near and far with the entire PSD community as well as family and friends. Though the ceremony was not in person, Dean Angela V. Olinto and Dean of Students Bahareh Lampert arranged for a special celebration of the work of the master’s and doctoral students who completed their degrees in the mathematical and physical sciences this academic year. In a letter inviting graduates to return to campus next year to walk when it is safe in-person, they stated that this year’s virtual ceremony would include some special send-offs that would be uniquely PSD.
“We thought it would be nice to invite current students to help celebrate the graduating students,” said Olinto. The dean and the dean of students wanted to find creative ways to celebrate graduates virtually, proud that over half of the PSD student body is international and worked off campus this year.
The first idea was to invite all PSD members to upload congratulatory messages to a shared online collection. People were encouraged to print off a congratulatory sign, snap a photo, and compose a message. The campaign took off from opening day.
The second was far more ambitious. After decades of mentoring and teaching students, Olinto knew that many students who are passionate about science are also talented musicians.
In an email message, Lampert invited any non-graduating students that play an instrument to volunteer to perform a part in a composition. Once they practiced their part, students would record it on video from wherever they were in the world, and essentially join a quarantine symphony. “Novi Scientiam” would accompany Convocation images from prior ceremonies, pictures of graduates, and exciting images of scientific research being carried out by the PSD.
They saw it as the perfect complement to the ceremony and reading of graduates’ names.
“Graduation is an opportunity for PSD to unite as a community in collective pride for our graduates, who overcame incredible challenges, achieved amazing results, and are now ready to improve the world outside our walls,” Olinto and Lampert wrote in their message to students.
“I asked my husband to make a new piece based on our ‘Alma Mater,’ using the instruments of the graduate students,” said Olinto. Her husband, the world-famous composer and Grammy-winning classical guitarist, Sérgio Assad, wrote a part for each volunteer, drawing inspiration from the traditional University song often performed at reunions and ceremonies.
Cheerfully she recalled how her plan had worked: “We got a very strange combination of instruments! Many, many pianos, some violins, some bassoons, some accordions, some berimbaus, and ukuleles.”
Twenty-one students in all practiced during the Spring Quarter, everywhere from Chicago to Brazil and China. Some were in bands, or brought their instruments to grad school and played regularly. Others hadn’t picked up their instrument until their recent return home.
“I'm glad to finally put years of casual self-teaching to use,” said Derrick Tang, a ukulele player and Master’s student in computer science.
“This project has been great!” said Alexander Edelman, a physics student who works on condensed matter theory and practiced piano from his apartment in the South Loop. “I haven't collaborated with anyone musically since the start of the pandemic and even in this odd way it felt nice to be playing a single part and knowing it would come together into something bigger.”
The PSD’s value of interdisciplinary collaboration became the spirit of the project, he said, “letting people follow their curiosity and talents into unexpected areas.”
A friend of the Olinto-Assad family, Uroš Barič, was called on to be the filmmaker. Using images curated by Olinto, Uroš worked on the project from Croatia, and collaborated on drafts until it was ready for the début at Convocation.
Students enjoyed being encouraged to perform their best while having fun and got to focus on something to boost PSD community-building outside their studies.
“I was afraid of underperforming, but I was very happy to participate,” said Davi Bastos Costa, a first-year student working on particle theory and anomalies in quantum field theory. He recorded his part from São Paulo, Brazil. “This project was a respectful and diverse collaboration to attain a meaningful goal. My hope is that it helps create a meaningful celebration for our graduates,” he said.
Jiaqi Qin, a first-year student in computational and applied mathematics (CAM), contributed violin from The University of Chicago Center in Beijing. “Getting involved in a music project is awesome! I hope the project’s outcome will be recognized and listened to by peers. ‘Novi Scientiam’ is a window into the happiness and passion of PSD students!”
Haokun Liu, another CAM student who works on time series forecasting with deep learning, hit on what Olinto was hoping for—scientists joyfully connecting through music: “It was actually the first time I played for an ensemble! It was a fresh new experience and encouraging. I hope to show that scientists also have this artistic side. We are a creative and impactful community.”
“This piece is about how different people, each doing what they are best at, can yield something great when working together,” said chemistry student and bassist Luis Busto de Moner.
Olinto said she has loved leading this special send-off. She, her family, and staff have been heartened by the enthusiasm and commitment of the students towards making something out of the ordinary shine.
“Most of them probably have never met before!” she said. “And it’s really nice to have the chance to put folks together and make an homage to the graduating students in that way. We can’t go and give them hugs after they get their diplomas,” she said, “but we can at least prepare this special treat for them.”