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Commencement Address

Sau Lan Wu ’63
Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

From Vassar to the Discovery of the Higgs Particle

President Hill, Professor Feroe, the Board of Trustees, the eminent faculty, proud parents and grandparents and Vassar graduates of the class of 2014:

Thank you for giving me this great honor and wonderful opportunity to address to-day’s 150 commencement ceremony.

Professor Feroe tells me that I am the first research scientist in 23 years and the first physicist ever to deliver a Vassar commencement address.

I hope that you will find the story of my journey from Vassar to the discovery of the Higgs Particle inspiring and interesting.

I set myself a goal of contributing to at least three major physics discoveries in my lifetime. So far I have participated in the discoveries of the charm quark, the gluon, and the Higgs particle. My third eminent participation is in the discovery of the Higgs particle. On July 4, 2012, the discovery of the Higgs particle was announced; I am sure you have read about it in New York Times or CNN. This is a discovery in which my Wisconsin group members and I played a prominent role.  This project is so gigantic that two independent teams of 3000 physicists each, the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, worked at the Large Hadron Collider at the laboratory CERN – the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland. The discovery was a culmination of two decades of hard work by more than 6000 scientists from 56 nations and about 200 institutions from all over the world.

The most effective way to produce a Higgs particle is by colliding two very energetic protons. To find a Higgs particle, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack, the size of a football stadium.

You may ask why do electrons, protons, neutrons and the other particles in our universe have the masses they do.  Discovering the Higgs particle takes us a step closer to answering this question.

The Higgs Particle is also called the God Particle. It is responsible for all masses, from electrons to humans to galaxies.  Without this particle, there would be no atoms, no molecules, no cells and of course no humans.

This particle was proposed in 1964 by three theoretical physicists François Englert, Robert Brout and Peter Higgs.  Englert and Higgs were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics last year; Brout unfortunately died two years ago.

Let me now share with you the joy of discovery. At midnight June 25, 2012, nine days before the announcement of the Higgs discovery, members in my Wisconsin group, after a number of sleepless nights, obtained a clear evidence of the Higgs particle.  At 3pm on the same day, there was a commotion in the Wisconsin corridor in the ground floor of Building 32 at CERN.  We heard my graduate student Haichen Wang saying, "Haoshuang is going to announce the discovery of the Higgs!" Our first reaction was to consider it as a joke, so when we entered my student Haoshuang Ji's office, we had smiles on our faces.  Those smiles suddenly became much bigger as we looked at his computer printout of a Higgs signal plot. Pretty soon, cheers were ringing down the Wisconsin corridor. Haichen Wang was video recording the excitement. We made a large copy of this Higgs signal plot and all my group members signed on it. This signed document is now displayed on the wall of the Wisconsin corridor at CERN.

Other groups in the two collaborations observed the same result, with the same excitement. They also have their own stories to tell.

On the day of the announcement of the discovery on July 4, 2012, the auditorium at CERN was locked until 9am.  In order to encourage all the students and postdocs of my group to witness the scientific event of the century, I promised a reward of $100 to whoever would line up outside the auditorium overnight.  They all got in.  At the end of the announcement of the discovery, I went to shake hands with Prof. Higgs.  I told him "I have been looking for you for over 20 years".  And I will always cherish his reply: "Now, you have found me”.  In fact, it had taken me thirty two years, from 1980 to 2012.

On March 5, 2013 my photo with four other physicists appeared on the front page of New York Times. The heading: Chasing the Higgs – Struggle, and finally triumph, in the search for physics’ most elusive particle. This article was written by Dennis Overbye.

Now, I would like to share with you my journey from Vassar to the Higgs discovery.

I was born in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation.  My mother, with me in her arms, ran in and out of bomb shelters.  My mother was the sixth concubine of my father who was a well-known businessman in Hong Kong.  However she was not the favorite of my father's wives. My mother and I were cast out and we were put to live in a slum.  My mother and my younger brother lived in a rented small bedroom and I had a rented bed in a corridor in a rice shop.  I grew up with a strong determination to be financially independent of men.

At the end of each school day, we lined up to say good bye to our teacher with a whip in his hand.  I was in a school overcrowded with students. Every time when an officer from the Education Department came for inspection, I had to hide.

Until I was 12 years old, I rarely saw my father.

We then moved to an apartment and I would see my father once a week for a couple of hours.  I impressed my father when he found out that I was able to multiply a 3 digit number by another 3 digit number in my head. My father believed that the key to success is to be good in English and arithmetic. 

My mother grew up in a farm in China and girls were not allowed to go to school.  Hence my mother cannot read and cannot write and has never worked.  However my mother is the most inspiring person in my life.  She realized early on in my childhood the tremendous value of education.  She did everything in her power to move me and my younger brother from schools in the slum to missionary schools in Hong Kong. 

When I graduated from high school in 1959, my father did not want me to go to college. "You should now earn your living, and support your mother." I secretly applied to 50 colleges and universities in USA, asking for a full scholarship.  There were only four colleges that said they would consider me, all women colleges – Agnes Scott College in Georgia, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, Connecticut College and Vassar. I was rejected by the first three.  So I was about to be rejected by the whole United States!  While in despair, in April 1960, I was overjoyed to receive a telegram informing me that I was accepted by Vassar with a full scholarship. Truly, God decided to send me to Vassar.

I told my father I was accepted by Vassar. He happened to be in New York at the time, staying with a friend whose daughter was about to graduate from Vassar in May, class of 1960 (I would like to find and meet with this alumna of class 1960.).   When he attended her commencement ceremony right here in May 1960, my father realized that Vassar is a very prestigious college. However he complained that during the reception only peanuts were served. He was proud of my coming to Vassar.  With $300, he bought me tickets to go from Hong Kong to San Francisco by ship, President Wilson line, which took 17 days and then to New York by train. He gave me $40 for pocket money. He warned me not to go to parties. If I were to lose my scholarship, that would be it! 

The day I boarded the ship was the last time I saw my father.

During my trip from Hong Kong to San Francisco, we encountered several typhoons.  Few people were in the dining room. I saw my apple rolling from one side of the ship to the other. When the ship disembarked in San Francisco, several Vassar alumnae were waiting for me with home baked cakes.  I then took the train from San Francisco to New York on a 5 days journey with their cakes as my only food. I did not want to spend any money on meals. At New York, I was again picked up by several Vassar alumnae.

At Vassar, I had a full scholarship with room and board, and the American girls donated clothes for foreign students, so I didn't have to go shopping.  Vassar even sent me to a summer school in Richmond, Virginia the first summer I was here because my English was so poor that I couldn't pass my requirement. 

In my first year, I, together with eight other foreign students, were invited to the White House during Easter vacation to meet Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy ’51. I wore a Chinese dress, and my friends were uneasy about the high slits on the sides and kept reminding me to conceal it. We met many wives of congressmen and senators. I was asking myself whether this was intended as an aspiration for our future path.

I buried myself in the library, forever avoiding weekend busloads of Yale men.

My adjustment to the United States was a difficult one. I was unable to see my family for nine long years. I wanted to invite my father to my Ph.D. graduation at Harvard but he died a year earlier.

I can never repay Vassar’s generosity, from the dean who allowed me to charge all my books to the college store and to the Vassar girls who gave me clothes to wear. Professor [of physiology] Ruth Conklin created a job for me so I could earn some money. I ironed her suits and burned a big hole in one. My new job was to move piles of mud from one side of her garden to the other.

Because I never had to worry about my finances on campus, I could focus completely on my studies, hiding myself in the library’s basement for hours on end. I was thrilled with how well Vassar treated me. All of the support — emotional and financial — provided me with great inspiration to be a successful scholar.

I wanted to be an artist until I read Marie Curie’s biography and decided to devote my life to science. During my stay at Vassar, I worked as a summer student in 1962 and 1963 at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island where I became captivated by the study of particle physics. Those were exciting times, full of discoveries. There I first met my future husband.

After graduating from Vassar in 1963 with summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, I was accepted by Harvard with a fellowship, and also offers from Berkeley, Columbia and Yale.  Princeton wrote that they only accepted women if they were wives of faculty members. Caltech wrote that they did not have a women's dormitory, and would not accept women unless they were 'exceptional'!

My first year at Harvard was extremely difficult: boys did homework together in the men's dormitories; women were not allowed to go there. I was the only woman in physics in my class. At the end of first year (1963-1964), I was awarded a Master’s Degree – it was the first year when women were allowed to get a graduate degree from Harvard. 

In May 1964, on graduation day for my Master degree, I joined some of my classmates for a free lunch offered to new graduates in the Harvard Yard. A guard asked me to leave and I was kicked out of the Harvard Yard. I was told that no woman had been allowed to this commencement lunch in 100 years; I left my friends with tears in my eyes.

At Harvard, “we shall overcome” by Joan Baez was my favourite song.

In 1970, with a Ph.D. degree from Harvard, I became a research associate at MIT, participating in the charm quark discovery in 1974 at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. My supervisor, Professor Samuel Ting, was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1976 for this discovery together with Professor Burton Richter of Stanford.

In 1977, I became an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Another woman physicist and I were the first women professors of Physics ever in this University, at that time already over a hundred years old.

In 1979, I was the leading figure in the gluon discovery and I was the co-recipient of the 1995 European Physical Society Prize for High Energy Physics. The gluon was a new particle responsible for binding quarks together to form protons and neutrons. This research was done in the German National Laboratory (DESY) in Hamburg.

The following year in 1996, I was elected to be a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As you can imagine, it was not always easy for a woman to be in the scientific field in the 60s, 70s and even 80s.  I remember reading in Life magazine that, if you are a man, people assume you are competent until you prove you are not.  If you are a woman, people assume you are not competent until you prove you are. I encountered that mentality a lot early on.  When I became successful, people would point to me and say that I am an aggressive person.  You must be immune to this kind of criticism.

In late 1970 when I was an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin, I was at the age when I had to decide whether I should have children or not.  My husband and I realized that if I did so, I probably would not get tenure and I would lose all my research funding.  Now, today, you would never think about that, but in those days it was a reality.  That was the decision I had to make.

I then turned to scientific discoveries and education of young scholars as my primary missions. Over 50 graduate students have received Ph.D. degrees under my supervision.  Many moved on to take positions at prestigious places – Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Stanford, for example. Thirty three of my former students and postdocs are now professors in the US and worldwide. Others work in governments or in industries all over the world.  I am extremely proud of them and consider them as members of my family.  Through them my inspiration has reached out all over the US and in other parts of the world.

How do my graduate students benefit from working with me? My students work with me at CERN in an international environment, and they have a chance to participate in and witness major discoveries in physics. They learn to solve problems under tremendous time pressure. They cannot be slow. They are constantly in a friendly competition with young physicists from many other countries.  This type of training is especially important in the international, global arena.

Yes, I was warned that it would be hard for an Asian female to have a career in a field dominated by white males; but Vassar and Harvard degrees provided me with the self-confidence and credentials necessary for this challenge. In particular, Vassar College gave me the exclusive opportunity to come to America. Vassar has played a pivotal role in my life and has paved my way to a successful career.

In my career, I am indebted to many. The first one on the list is of course Vassar; a big part of my share of the Higgs discovery belongs to Vassar College.

This address is also dedicated to my 94 years old mother, Ying Lai: she was not allowed to attend school but she has valued education to be of the utmost importance for her children; to my younger brother Ming Lun Yu and his wife Lynne, their friendship and dedication to my mother have an eternal influence on my life, and to my husband Tai Tsun Wu, who is tremendously supportive of my career.

I would also like to extend my heart-felt thanks to the marvellous support of my research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the U.S. Department of Energy.

In 1963, I was here by the Sunset Lake, just like you. I was overjoyed.   Right here, I made the resolution to devote my life to science and to make a significant contribution to humanity.  Since then I have experienced the joy of discoveries, in life as in science. The search may be long or difficult. Often times, it is long and difficult. But when obstacles strike, you fall down and you get back up. We need you in every aspect of our world, from science to society to the arts and everything in between. You believe in yourself.  You hold true to your determination. And you will do something great.

Over the past four years, Vassar has armed you with the friendship, and the creativity, and the tenacity to leave this place and achieve great things. Today, you are receiving your degrees. It is your determination that will be most valuable in the journey ahead.

You must believe where others do not. You must act where others cannot. You must lead where others will not.  You cannot wait for someone to invite you!

Vassar Class of 2014! Live with integrity and let your conscience be your guide. Be a pioneer and follow your heart, contributing to future human kind. With a Vassar education, and with fierce perseverance and determination, success will be ahead of you and your destiny.

Have faith and luck will follow you.

Thank you again for the profound honor of addressing you, and congratulations Vassar Class of 2014!