April 21, 2020
Syrian Truong was born in Fresno, California, and mostly lived there until he transferred from community college to university. The summer before arriving to the University of Chicago, he was doing a summer research internship at the Institut de Physique et Chimie des Matériaux de Strasbourg (IPCMS) in Strasbourg, France. Prior to this, he earned a B.S. in Physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and three A.S. degrees in Biology for Transfer, Mathematics for Transfer, and Physics for Transfer from Fresno City College in Fresno, California. He also held jobs during his undergrad as a busser at Hunan Chinese Restaurant, a mathematics tutor at Fresno City College’s Tutorial Center, and a research assistant at UCSB. He has been at UChicago for 1.5 years and is enrolled in the Master of Science in the Physical Sciences Division (MS-PSD) program, working on hard condensed matter theory research. He is currently staying at home in Fresno, California. We interviewed him about his experiences below.
What have you been studying or researching as part of your program?
In MS-PSD I do research and am writing a thesis in physics, along with graduate level physics coursework. My current research is in hard condensed matter theory and involves writing modified Gross-Pitaevskii equation simulations (in MATLAB) for polariton Bose-Einstein condensate-based research. Specifically, I am aiming to utilize software to numerically simulate the trajectory through and around the vicinity of a (critical) exceptional point. This enables analysis of the various properties and dynamic instabilities that occur around that region. These (critical) exceptional points can be thought of as points where a significant change happens in certain systems and where some strange/fundamental physics may happen as a result.
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
For Autumn 2018 admissions, I applied to mostly M.S. and post-baccalaureate physics programs, as my bachelor of science G.P.A. was below a 3.0 and I had a below average PGRE score. I was admitted to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Health Physics M.S. program with no funding and also to UChicago’s MS-PSD program with the PSD Pathway Scholarship, which provides two years of full tuition funding, healthcare, and a quarterly stipend.
At the time, I was heavily considering going towards a career in research on the effects of space radiation on humans. I was accepted at UNLV with the understanding that I would be working with Dr. Cucinotta, a prominent professor in this field. I was attending a space (radiation) based summer school program in Belgium that summer and I had family near Las Vegas. Furthermore, I had felt quite burned out and disheartened regarding my performance in physics coursework, despite my love for and success in physics research.
However, the opportunity to prove to myself (and admissions committees) that I could succeed at physics coursework at a reputable school such as UChicago, while performing graduate level research, was too good to pass up.
Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.
I am proud of raising my G.P.A. to above a 3.0 by the time PhD application season came around, submitting a co-authored research paper for publication in a respected physics journal, and obtaining an admission offer to UChicago’s Physics PhD program.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
I love going to PSD Social Committee Happy Hour, which is a weekly event on most Fridays during the school year, where PSD graduate students get pizza, chicken wings, samosas, beer, and/or soda for $1 or less each (with vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free options) and socialize with other PSD graduate students. I tend to volunteer to help with clean up, so my food/drinks are free, I can skip the line, and it’s nice to help people run events which rely on volunteers such as this. (It also gives me fond memories of my days as a busser.)
What are your plans post-UChicago?
I accepted the admission offer to the Physics PhD program at UChicago, so that’s my immediate plan after the MS-PSD program. After that though, I’m currently wrestling with several different career paths which will hopefully be clearer as I progress further in my graduate educational career.
One career path is the traditional academic pursuit of becoming a tenured professor at a research institution (after some number of postdoc positions) where I can perform research in a desired area. Research is something I currently enjoy doing and would like to continue doing. I could mentor/teach students, and would hope to be in a geographical location I desire.
However, other paths I am currently considering may be joining a quantum computing or nuclear fusion related start-up/company, as these two paths combine some degree of research, societal impact, and/or philosophical intrigue that I desire from a career, respectively.
What support have you received at UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
Through the PSD Pathway Scholarship, I have received both valuable advising and funding throughout my MS program. I have also received a lot of support and camaraderie from fellow Physics MS-PSD and PhD students who entered UChicago the same year as me. There were many crucial late-night problem set working sessions on the third floor of KPTC. Furthermore, I have received research advising/collaboration support and resources from my research group colleagues and advisors, in both the Engel Group (with whom I worked in Winter 2019) and the Littlewood Group (current group). Some of these valuable resources have included a desk in an office in GCIS, a trip to the Flatiron Institute where I met a now current collaborator/advisor, and access to computing clusters.
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that there is a mix of good and bad things here, like at all places, but that overall there is more good than bad. And that there are some amazing and kind people who are worth coming here for. I would then get into the specifics of what they most wanted to know about regarding UChicago and its various programs, then try my best to connect them to current students/people who would better be able to answer their questions.
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
I grew up on the outskirts of Fresno (a conservative city in California’s Central Valley) as a first-generation college student from a low-income background. I am a gay, multi-racial Latinx/Asian (Nicaraguan/Vietnamese) person with depression, and whose parents are disabled refugees. At UCSB, I was a transfer liaison and co-president of a national LGBTQ+ STEM organization’s (oSTEM) university branch. Furthermore, I participated in several diversity-based scholar programs while at UCSB, such as McNair and the California Alliance for Minority Participation. Lastly, I am a board/committee member on the Diversity Advisory Board and the PSD Dean’s Student Advisory Committee at UChicago.
All of this has prepared me to contribute in many different ways. First, I am obviously a member of several groups that many diversity and inclusion initiatives aim to impact, so I can speak from experience regarding the effects of these initiatives. Second, I have worked on said initiatives through various platforms. Third, I try my best to be mindful of my own ignorance regarding disadvantaged communities that I have less experience with, and learn more about those communities, keeping in mind my own experiences with people who sometimes don’t know any better.
While many people who share some of my background traits and experiences may be a lot more pessimistic when it comes to creating a world that better values diversity/inclusion—and honestly I don’t blame them as the world is difficult when you are significantly “different” from the majority in your society—as of right now, I still feel a strong desire to continue devoting my time towards such diversity and inclusion initiatives, even if I could be using that time to directly further my research career instead. I am lucky that I have met many people in my life who feel the same and prove it.
I am reminded of an old VHS tape home movie my parents made one day that depicted a party they hosted full of Vietnamese immigrants, Nicaraguan immigrants, and their White and African American neighbors all simply eating, drinking, and having fun socializing together. It’s nice to remind myself that there is proof that humans from all walks of life can work together for a better and just world if we keep trying.