POUGHKEEPSIE, NY -- As a young girl in her native Hong Kong, Sau Lan Wu dreamed of being a painter. Then she read about Marie Curie's life and was inspired to become a physicist. Now an internationally acclaimed scientist, Dr. Wu will return to her alma mater fifty-one years after graduating to deliver the address at the 150th Vassar College Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The commencement program will begin at the campus Outdoor Amphitheater at 10:00am.
A crowning achievement in Dr. Wu’s illustrious career was her integral role in the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, popularly known as the “God particle,” which is considered to be the missing link in explaining how matter attains mass and which is expected to yield important clues about how the universe was formed. According to physicist and author Michael Riordan, “Sau Lan and her group helped to pioneer the actual line of research into decays of the Higgs boson that proved to be the most fruitful in making the discovery.”
The Higgs boson was the last remaining elementary particle to be proved of the seventeen predicted by the Standard Model, the ruling physics theory of the last half-century. In fact Wu had already played a key part in identifying two of the other sixteen particles predicted by the Standard Model: the J particle, also known as the Charm quark, and the gluon. Among her many honors, in 1995 she became the first American to win the High-Energy and Particle Physics Prize from the European Physical Society, sharing the award with three colleagues for their discovery of the gluon.
Wu is the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, but is based at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, Switzerland, where she leads the university’s team of roughly 20 scientists as part of the international ATLAS group. Of her work on the Higgs boson, Wu explains, “The universe would be very different without this particle. There would be no atoms, no human beings. Everything would be massless. So this really is a discovery of the century.” Two of her CERN colleagues who led the decades-long effort to discover the so-called “God particle” were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. CERN is home to the 17-mile long Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator, the largest machine in the world, which was a key tool in the discovery.
In a Vassar interview Wu explained that she initially, “dreamed of becoming a painter, but reading the biography of Marie Curie inspired me so much that I decided to devote my life to physics.” Notably, in 1959 she left her Hong Kong for the first time to attend Vassar, on a full scholarship, and didn’t return home until after graduating in 1963 summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in physics.
“I am delighted that Sau Lan Wu accepted our invitation to give this year’s commencement address. It’s always a particular thrill to welcome back an alumna in this way and her personal story and her success in her field are inspiring,” said Vassar president Catharine Hill.
Even Wu’s acceptance into college was far from a simple matter. “If Vassar had not admitted me, I would not be where I am. I applied to 50 places, but I asked for a full scholarship. There were only four places that said they would consider me, and I was rejected by three,” she said in a Vassar interview. She also recounted, “I came to Vassar with no money. My father gave me $40 and Vassar basically covered all of my costs. I had a full scholarship, room and board, and the American girls donated clothes for the foreign students, so I didn’t have to go shopping. Vassar really made sure I would succeed and graduate. They trained me to have perseverance, persistence, and if you have that, you basically will not fail.”
Wu went on to earn her Ph.D. in physics from Harvard, and then worked as a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she assisted in the 1974 discovery of the charm quark. Soon after Wu joined the University of Wisconsin faculty, where she immediately began work to unearth the gluon, so named for its ability to hold quarks together to form composite particles such as protons and neutrons. In 1996, she was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Sau Lan Wu will be the fourth Vassar graduate to deliver their alma mater’s commencement address, joining the ranks of actresses Meryl Streep and Lisa Kudrow and journalist Chip Reid.
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