My Path Toward Theoretical Physics - Alan Salcedo

Exploration: In the first fifteen years of my life in Juarez, Mexico, I did not show any particular talents or deep interests for anything specific. I tried doing different things without a clear purpose. In elementary school, I only participated in one academic contest where I lost without grace. In middle school, I joined a mariachi ensemble with my friends. I also participated in debates. And while I was selected to represent the city at state level competitions in some debates, in other occasions I lost during the first round of competitions. I also ran as president for our student association, but lost the elections. It may sound like I was an active and responsible middle school student, but I was active only because I was looking for a good excuse to get out of class. However, I realize that trying different academic activities even if I wasn’t deeply interested at first was so important. Looking back, I can see that it’s the best way to explore and understand your interests. Simply thinking about what you like or don’t like may not work as easy. Explore and experience as much as you can! Due to the many activities that I tried, my family once thought that I would become a musician, a politician, a lawyer, and even a doctor. Nonetheless, I had no idea what I wanted to study, but trying different activities led me to become something no one guessed: a theoretical physicist! This choice only became apparent until my last years in high school.

Joy: My parents enrolled me at an institution which was known for high academic standards. After getting used to this new environment, I started doing the same as middle school. I enrolled in as many competitions as possible with no other purpose than the benefits of getting out of class. Looking back, my curiosity was always there also. Then, during sophomore year, I participated in a regional Physics contest where I had to solve slightly complex problems. To my surprise, I could easily see many of their tricks and I enjoyed the feeling of using equations to describe real phenomena. This was my first experience doing so. I would like to believe that all kids are born physicists in the sense that we all wonder why things fall, why the sun burns, or how tornados are formed. However, in my case it took me some time to figure out my path toward Physics. I was fascinated about by how mathematics and physical intuition helped me describe real phenomena with numbers. Meaning that it was interesting to see that we could predict things almost exactly from a physical theory. I wanted to know more and more, to the point I could understand the world from its most basic elements such as electrons and particles inside nuclei.

When the regional Physics contest was finished, I was taken back to school and I told my friends about the problems I tried to solve and about my overall experience. At that moment, I realized that I had found one of my passions: I was happily describing how I solved the problems, while also trying to figure out my mistakes with grace. I did not care about the benefit of being out of class anymore. I didn’t mind the results or that I made some mistakes. I simply enjoyed the experience. I hope that you discover someday that you cannot love or have passion for doing something and allow yourself to do it badly. Loving something means that you want to dedicate time and try hard. A few months later, I received confirmation of the first-place prize, indicating I had surpassed even the more advanced competitors from my institution.

Altruism: You probably may have heard that at some point in time Juarez, Mexico was known as one of the most violent cities in the world. My generation lived its teenage years during the Mexican drug war. As a result, I got involved in initiatives led by students who wanted to mitigate the effects of the drug wars on innocent people. Together with three friends I created a student organization for youth empowerment called ACT, like your college entrance exam, to encourage high school students to become active in their communities. For our work, we shared the State Youth Prize on Social Engagement in 2014 and were invited to become founding members of the Youth Council of the U.S. Consulate in Juarez. During my service, I learned the meaning of resilience. This is an important concept in my life and later became the topic of a student camp that we designed for three-hundred and fifty middle school students in Juarez.

Hardship: Like most typical students I enrolled at a college located close to my family, but for me it was across a border. Living in a city next to the U.S. border gave me the possibility to attend the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) provided that I had the means to pay for tuition. Here is where my hardship began. In the U.S. I was an international student without federal financial aid, with limited access to scholarships and internships. I lived with my family in Mexico, but our city did not have the opportunities that existed just a few miles from where I lived. However, my family and I would not allow a border to keep me away from my drive to become a physicist. My family supported me financially during my first semester of college, but at some point, they were forced to sell a house due to insufficient income. In college, I saw many of my friends from the U.S. receive scholarships and being offered several internships while living close to campus. I was jealous because we were all working very hard, but I was not eligible for the same opportunities. I commuted daily, from Mexico to the U.S., spending around three hours per day going back and forth. During my walks, sometimes I reminded myself about my inner struggles. I was bothered by the thought that I had never met a physicist from Juarez, how could I even become one when I had all odds against me? My walks were sometimes filled with doubt, but I had to learn to focus on the opposite. There was something in me that also told me that I had to establish a precedent, so others do not have to feel my frustration.

Resilience and Change: All my scholarship applications were unsuccessful during my first semester in college, but my luck would change. My instructor of introductory mechanics, and chairman of the Physics department, quickly recognized my abilities. After a few conversations, he found me a job as an undergraduate Teaching Assistant. The stress of financial instability was finally relieved. Now I had one more task: to accomplish my goals despite hardship and setbacks, which is what resiliency is all about. That year, I earned a fellowship offer to perform summer research in nuclear theory at UTEP. The next year, I was rejected from two out of three research fellowships. Luckily, an offer came from MIT which assigned me to work at its Center for Theoretical Physics with a successful nuclear theorist who was once a student of a historic physicist and Nobel Laureate. After this internship, my life changed. I realized that I had to make changes to blend my personal life and an academic life. This meant that I had to start spending most of my days at school to balance research with coursework.

Harvest: During my undergraduate studies, I made a long list of failures, but I still succeeded more than I expected. I performed research at MIT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and UTEP. I went to summer school and attended workshops at Michigan State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Yale, and Utrecht University. I presented research posters at eight professional conferences and symposiums. I completed an honors thesis in Condensed Matter Theory, which resulted in a talk at a conference with experts in the field and a post-graduation publication in a well-recognized journal. I received departmental awards for academic and research excellence in Physics and Mathematics and I was selected banner bearer of the College of Science at my commencement in December 2019. Recently I had accepted a Distinguished University Fellowship offer from the Ohio State University (a top 30 program) to begin my PhD studies, which will most likely be in Nuclear Theory.

Takeaway: In Exploration, I wanted to tell you to try out different paths before committing to one, even if you are not sure if you like them initially. There is great value in trying different academic activities. Also, our minds are ever so awake with new experiences. In the “Joy” phase, I am saying that the correct major you choose is the one where you will do the things that you truly enjoy. In the “Altruism” phase, the point is to do something good for others. The goal is to find a cause that matters to you and contribute to that cause. This will keep you humble. In the “Hardship” phase, I mentioned my own experience, but you will find your own hardship because it is part of life for everyone. You can let that hardship eat at your thoughts or you can assign a purpose to hard times. Overcoming hardship for yourself and those you love is always a good start. In the “Resilience and Change” phase, I am telling you that things will not always work as expected and that you will have to make sacrifices. Dedication requires much time, but it will be worth it when you love and enjoy what you do. Trust that everything will work out even when thing do not go as expected. Along the way, you will have great experiences, meet awesome people and you will harvest an unimaginable and bright future.