From as early as the age of eight, Wentao Cui had a keen interest in mathematics and physics.
“I was fortunate to have been taught some advanced math and physics by my family when I was quite young and found it very interesting,” he says. “Also, popular science books sparked my imagination. For as long as I can remember, I enjoyed trying to understand what the universe was made of at the most fundamental level, and tried to understand the nature of what we observed around us.”
Even after enrolling in the engineering program at U of T, Cui couldn’t let go of that fascination and after the first semester of his first year, he switched programs to study the disciplines he loved.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he says. “Once I made up my mind, I never looked back.”
A member of New College, Cui will be graduating this fall and has already moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study high energy physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“As far back as high school, I dreamt of going to MIT,” he says. “I applied once before and wasn’t accepted. I was very disappointed by that. But four years later, I’ve been accepted and it’s cathartic and kind of surreal.”
Can you describe the research that you’re interested in?
I’m interested in all kinds of math and physics, but I’m most passionate about theoretical high energy physics. This uses the mathematical language of quantum field theory to explain the fundamental constituents of the universe in the form of elementary particles such as electrons and quarks, and how these constituents interact to produce physics.
In particular, there is the issue of unification. Up until the start of the 20th century, we had two competing frameworks for physics. Quantum mechanics describes phenomenon at the atomic level; and special relativity describes what happens when things go near the speed of light. But ideally, we want a single theory instead of two to describe everything that we observe. The unification of these two frameworks is achieved through quantum field theory, culminating a century later in what we know today as the Standard Model. Still though, there are many issues with the theory, namely that it doesn’t account for gravity at all, often described as the final frontier of particle physics. The effort to unify gravity with quantum field theory is known as quantum gravity. This that I’m most interested in and that I would like to spend the next five years pursuing at MIT.
Can you describe the research you did during your undergrad?
I had the opportunity to work with Professor David Curtin on the MATHUSLA experiment which is designed to detect as yet undiscovered subatomic particles produced in the collisions created in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. Many theories predict that certain particles exist to account for unexplained physical phenomena like why there appears to be more matter than antimatter in our universe, but we haven’t seen them yet. MATHUSLA will help determine whether these theories are right or not.
I also worked with Professor Michael Luke on something called soft-collinear effective theory (SCET) which he first developed in 2001 to describe the interactions of particles with a very wide range of energies. So, you can study quarks interacting or use this to study baryons and mesons — which are particles made of quarks — and how they interact. For instance, the LHC smashes protons together at very high energies in particle colliders and then we look at the debris left by the collision. It’s like smashing two intricate watches together and studying all the pieces to figure out how they work. From these collisions, we try to infer properties of these — such as how quarks are distributed inside of them — to see if experiments match our theories. These are incredibly difficult to calculate accurately but can be done through SCET.
Do you know what you’re going to study at MIT?
As I mentioned, I’m most interested in research toward unifying gravity with quantum field theory. But at MIT, you don't have to choose your advisor until the end of your first year. So usually, students in high energy physics do a rotation or two with some professors they’re interested in working with. And if you like working with someone and like the research, you can stay with them and have them as your advisor. So right now, I'm reading about professors and their work but I haven't decided who to choose as my advisor yet.
What are some of the highlights of your past four years at U of T?
A highlight has been the friends I've made. I will definitely miss them. When I transferred into math and physics from engineering, I didn’t really know anyone and spent a lot of time working and studying on my own. But then I started going to the physics lounge in the McLennan Physical Laboratories building to work. And that’s where I met people. We would talk and work on physics problems together. All these friends were a big help in getting through the past few years, especially during the pandemic. And now, even though we're in different countries, we still talk to each other regularly.
What advice would you give first-year students?
Don't be afraid to put yourself out there. I was quite shy my first year and stuck to my courses. In the beginning, I mostly worked by myself. But it’s much harder to do things that way. If you make friends, go to instructors’ office hours, go to tutorials, you’ll find people and you can help each other out. You build off each other's knowledge and learn an incredible amount because everyone has a different background and has different insights. Join clubs, too, because that’s how you find like-minded people. For example, I joined the the U of T Quizbowl team and I had a great time!
Looking back, what else have you learned over the past four years?
As much as there were high points, there were also lows, times that were difficult — especially during the pandemic. Doing everything online and experiencing isolation were challenging. But I made it through those low points and that’s an achievement I’m proud of. I guess it’s like undergoing training. It’s from tough situations like this that you learn and become more resilient. When you face adversity, you can either give up or face the challenge and grow. So, in the end, I’m thankful for all these opportunities because they helped shape me into who I am today.
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