My Academic Journey…

Physics graduates Mr Lim Zheng Liang [BSc (Hons) 2019] and Dr Zhang Qi (PhD 2019) share about their academic journey.

I consider myself a late bloomer. I did not fare well in my primary school leaving examination and secondary school physics. However, that did not stop me from pursuing something non-trivial as physics. Through Discovery Channel, I came to know of Prof Stephen Hawking. I was deeply inspired by his perseverance and undying will to seek a better understanding of cosmology and black holes. So I began spending time reading Hawking’s books like A Brief History of Time. Though I found the classroom physics teaching not as inspiring as I had hoped, deep down inside me, I knew that I have always wanted to pursue theoretical physics. So it was without hesitation that I decided to pursue a higher education in physics and NUS was my first choice.

During my time at the Department of Physics, I undertook a few projects in theoretical physics. At the end of my second year, I had the opportunity to work on a UROPS project under A/Prof Edward Teo on black holes and asymptotic symmetries as I was particularly interested in Strominger’s unique attempt in resolving the black hole information paradox. The following year, I went on an exchange programme at the University of California, Davis, where I took a graduate course in Riemannian geometry to augment my understanding of the mathematics behind Einstein’s General Relativity.

After my exchange, I embarked on another research opportunity at Academia Sinica, Taiwan, for about three months. During the time, I worked on the subject of Intrinsic Time Quantum Geometrodynamics—the oldest approach in quantising gravity, which more recently, incorporated Horava Lifshitz gravity into its context. In addition, I also attended some conferences and met one of my idols in theoretical physics, Prof Juan Maldacena, who has published the most cited paper in theoretical physics indirectly leading to a better understanding of the relationship between black hole physics and condensed matter physics.

It was without hesitation that I decided to pursue a higher education in physics and NUS was my first choice.

I then returned to the department and completed my thesis with the guidance of A/Prof Kuldip Singh. Here we explored Newton-Cartan gravity which is the realisation of Newtonian gravity under the mathematical context of Riemannian geometry. All in all, I would say that my academic journey in NUS is definitely a fulfilling one.

Having said all these, I would not disagree that studying physics is challenging especially for some modules. The derivations may be tedious and cumbersome. But if physics is really something one is passionate about, then it is not worth giving up! The struggle is never alone but a collective one! So for juniors out there, if the answers are not obvious even from the lecturers, treat it as a test of self-discipline. Make full use of the recommended materials or textbook and work through problems to enhance your understanding before the exams.

Looking back at my past four years, I am grateful to the professors in the department who were open for consultations whenever I needed help. I do wish I had time to participate in other curriculum activities and meet new friends outside of physics. So my advice to juniors is to make full use of the opportunities the university offers, whether to enhance one’s research experience or to make new friends. As ideal as possible, there should be a fine balance between school work and fun. Finally, ignore those naysayers who say there is no job prospect with a physics education. Pick up technical skills like coding, Matlab, etc and promote these skills so that you can be a notch above the rest when it comes to career search.

Zheng Liang is currently pursuing his postgraduate studies at the Centre for Particle Theory, Durham University.

Zheng Liang with his family at the recent Class of 2019 commencement

A chance meeting with Prof Juan Maldacena at a string theory conference at National Taiwan University


Zhang Qi sharing a light moment with his girlfriend

At the Nanomaterials and Devices lab

I obtained my undergraduate degree at Soochow University (SU), China, in 2014. You may be surprised that I actually majored in chemical engineering instead of physics at that time. However, I always have a strong interest in physics that was rooted in my mind since high school. Opportunity came in the form of a joint programme between NUS and SU that allows junior students to pursue a master’s degree in the Department of Physics at NUS. Without any hesitation, I applied for the programme and transferred my study to physics in the same year. After I have completed the master’s programme, again motivated by the same passion and looking forward, I decided to continue to explore the wonderful world of physics with a PhD pursuit.

At the beginning of my PhD journey, I perceived that the organic-inorganic hybrid perovskite is a novel material which exhibits intriguing optical and optoelectronic properties. This advanced new material is attracting worldwide attention and many interesting and important open questions remained to be answered—more open questions mean more opportunities. Also, I could carry out my further studies at the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials which is one of the most advanced 2D materials research centres in the world. It is equipped with a state-of-the-art clean room and top-notch facilities which can fully support my research work.

In my opinion, anyone pursuing higher study in physics should ask themselves at least two questions before deciding on their research field. The first and foremost is, Do you see the beauty of physics deep in your heart and are touched by it? The second: Are there adequate hardware capacities (e.g. experimental equipment) that can support your research study?

For undergraduate studies, I think most of the time the goal is to understand formulas and concepts that had been verified and written in textbooks. But for PhD research, you must carry out innovative works yourself to explore the unknown world and broaden the boundary of knowledge. The truth I must say is that the PhD journey is quite hard and you have to be mentally well-prepared.

For PhD research, you must carry out innovative works yourself to explore the unknown world and broaden the boundary of knowledge.

I encountered numerous challenges in the past four years since I opened up a new research direction in my lab and walked on the path alone. Albert Einstein once said “the formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution”. I cannot agree more with his words. Coming up with a cool idea is the most challenging thing for researchers.

I would like to share three tips—which have helped me greatly—with any PhD student here. Firstly, put in intense effort on literature review, understand the logic of the published papers and ask yourself constantly what you have really learned. Secondly, attempt hands-on bravely rather than just storing ideas in your mind. Physics is essentially an experimental science and sometimes you just might make unexpected hair-raising discoveries. Remember, an idea does not mean anything until you realise it. Thirdly, it is a good habit to discuss questions with researchers all over the world and build a good cooperative relationship with them. Learn from them but do not rely on them; be your own master.

I harvested my first paper in the fourth year, a little late, but a year later, I published three more first-author papers with high impact factors and an additional two first-author papers are in the waiting list. I cannot achieve this without the help of my supervisor A/Prof Eda Goki and some outstanding collaborators. The PhD journey is like a marathon—seizing your rhythm and moving forward step by step, I am sure you will reach your goal.

The lessons I have learned from my academic journey are many. The most important is to be humble towards nature. The more you know about nature, the more you will hold nature in awe. I am open-minded with my future career. I truly believe that science and technology are two primary productive forces that drive the world, so I would prefer opportunities in academy or R&D positions in industries.

To my juniors, I hope you seize the day, cherish the time and enjoy your academic journey too! Though after graduation you seldom may use or even forget the knowledge you gain, the methodology of doing things and logical thinking you acquire now will enrich your mind and benefit you consistently.