Graduate Student Spotlight: Hangyi Wu
When Hangyi Wu arrived in Syracuse to pursue his Ph.D. in physics, he already knew what research he wanted to pursue. As a student in China, Wu had focused his undergraduate thesis on high energy physics data analysis, and he was going to continue that work in America. Syracuse University has a large research group devoted to improving the LHCb particle detector, one of the particle detectors collecting data at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Many other universities around the world collaborate on the LHCb experiment, so why did Wu choose Syracuse University?
The LHC produces more data in a minute than most people will use in their entire lives, and Wu’s experience in data analysis would serve him well, regardless of where he went. Wu picked a collaboration that would suit his interests and his skillset; he knew the LHCb group was doing work he found interesting, and he had the skills to succeed in that environment. Syracuse’s group works on detector hardware, specifically the physical equipment that tracks the shower of charged particles that occurs from the collision of particles near the speed of light. Wu wanted to do more than simply continue his undergraduate work, he wanted hands-on experience working on the detector itself, not just the data that comes out of it. Syracuse University could give Wu the perfect research environment.
What Wu, or anyone else, could not foresee was an outbreak of a global pandemic two and a half years into his Ph.D. Although life has not been as expected, Wu has persevered through social isolation and disruption of his work to become the physicist that he is today.
Growing up, Wu always had an interest in science. In his high school years, this manifested as a devotion to reading science news. At that time, the LHC was making the biggest waves among physics enthusiasts both inside and outside the field. Wu took notice and was especially intrigued by the possibility of discovering new fundamental particles that make up the building blocks of our universe.
Wu made up his mind to become a physicist and started working in high school to achieve this dream. Even though he worked tirelessly, Wu credits a lot of his success to the cast of teachers that supported him. “It's not enough to have pure passion. More importantly, I had several really conscientious physics teachers during my high school. They all gave me a lot of encouragement and support, which greatly built up my confidence in dealing with physics problems and math.”
When Wu arrived in Syracuse for the first time, he faced the challenges one would expect from uprooting himself from his native culture and moving halfway around the world. Wu had to find food that he could enjoy, had to make new friends, had to adjust to being so far from family, had to rent an apartment and furnish it; in short, he had to create a home in Syracuse.
Wu feels this has not been a major source of hindrance for him in Syracuse. He only expresses frustration when it comes to communication. “Under many circumstances I can make myself understood by other people fine. However, simply being understood is not enough. I want to sound less like a robot... Native speakers can describe the same object in millions of different ways (even with funny slang or jokes), but this isn't true for me in terms of vocabulary and sentence structuring.”
Wu’s own words clearly describe the struggle he goes through when communicating in English, but that does not make his struggle any easier to bear or invalid. It is frustrating to study English for over a decade, yet still feel robotic when conversing with native speakers. It is more frustrating when you are always immersed in an environment where English is the only language spoken.
However, these challenges have not deterred Wu. He earned himself a place in the LHCb group at Syracuse and has been doing research within the group for the past three years. On the hardware side of his research, Wu works to create wire bonds on and between detector elements and ensures they perform to expectations.
Wu’s research also includes a project in data analysis. He searches through terabytes of LHCb data looking for evidence of B meson neutrinoless double beta decay. This decay process could happen when two beta decays occur simultaneously at the same location, both releasing a neutrino. Wu looks for the signatures of this decay to determine if neutrinos are Majorana in nature, meaning that neutrinos are their own anti-particle. If neutrinos are Majorana particles, then the two neutrinos in the double beta decay process will annihilate and there will be no neutrinos in the resultant shower of particles. Hence the name, neutrinoless double beta decay.
The current dominant theory of fundamental particles, the Standard Model, does not consider neutrinos to be Majorana particles. Wu’s research has the potential to strengthen this theory or prove the exact opposite.
Throughout all of his four years researching, studying, and working in the lab, Wu had a very laconic but powerful response when talking about what has challenged him most at Syracuse University, “It’s undeniable, this pandemic.”
All of us had to adjust when the first shutdowns began in March 2020, but only the international students were going into social isolation thousands of miles from home. Although the isolation took its toll, Wu expresses the most distress when he would leave his home, “On one hand, I'm constantly worrying about going to public places where people don't wear masks or wear masks sloppily. On the other hand, I'm concerned about being considered overly stressed or anxious [for wearing a mask properly].”
Since the Covid pandemic began in America, anti-Asian discrimination has been a rising social pandemic of its own. According to data from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at
California State University, San Bernardino, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen by at least 50% in 13 of America’s 18 most populous cities from 2019 to 2020. In New York City, the closest major city to Syracuse, anti-Asian hate crimes rose 833% in the same time span. Hate crimes overall dropped 9% from 2019 to 2020, meaning a much larger portion of hate crimes are being directed against the Asian community in America compared to even just two years ago.
Although Wu has not expressed any instances of anti-Asian bigotry that have strongly affected him since the pandemic began, he is no stranger to the more casual instances of discrimination. Wu remembers attending a party where someone expressed confusion that he did not remove his shoes, telling him that is something all Asians do. Another instance came in early March 2020 just before the pandemic began in America, when a member of the department mocked Wu in public for wearing a mask. Just a few weeks later that person, along with everyone else in the nation, would be mandated to wear a mask in public. Instead of being lauded for his foresight, Wu had to face mockery.
Wu does not let these instances of stereotyping and aggression dissuade him, “Indeed, there are some stereotypes targeting me, which made me a little uncomfortable, but I don't worry too much about them as long as I can keep doing what I like as a physicist.” And Wu does intend to keep doing what he likes in physics.
Using his diverse background in all aspects of particle physics, Wu intends to pursue a further career in the field after earning his Ph.D. at Syracuse University. In addition to the hard skills, he has picked up, Wu is also grateful for the soft skills he has learned in the international environment of Syracuse Physics, “I'm using this opportunity to better my communication skills with scientists from other countries by learning their cultures and dealing with the misunderstandings, etc.”
With all the experience Wu has earned and the unwavering diligence he has displayed in pursuing his research, it is doubtful this is the last time that Hangyi Wu will be the subject of an article. Next time the spotlight will be much brighter.