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Mao Zeng Q&A: Understanding Particle Collisions 

STONY BROOK, NY -- Mao Zeng completed his PhD in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in August 2015. His dissertation research explores using quantum chromdynamics (QCD) to make precise predictions for high-energy particle collisions, for example at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). He is currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

How did you come to study theoretical physics?

I grew up in a family of engineers in China, and I became interested in math and science at an early age. I still remember my father showing me a newspaper story, when I had barely learned to read, about scientists making the 110th element for the first time. I was fascinated. It is my childhood dream to explore the inner workings of nature, and I was lucky enough to be given a chance to pursue a PhD in theoretical physics.

What excites you about your work?

When I started my PhD, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), one of the world’s flagship particle physics experiments, had just switched on, and the spectacular discovery of the Higgs boson would soon follow. The major theme of my PhD research is using quantum chromodynamics (QCD) to understand particle collisions at the LHC. This is a problem that is both very theoretical and very down-to-earth. A paper I co-authored with my advisor helped to clarify conflicting predictions for the rate of production of Higgs bosons at the LHC.

What have you found challenging?

A challenge is balancing my own research efforts with learning about other people's research. It is demanding to keep up with the latest developments in a fast-moving field. It is incredibly useful to go to conferences, workshops, and talks with other researchers.

How did you settle on Stony Brook for your doctoral research?

Before coming to Stony Brook, I was also considering an offer from a top UK institution. At that time I was torn between different subfields of theoretical high-energy physics. Eventually I chose Stony Brook, not only because of its exceptionally strong program, but also because the five-year doctoral program in the US – as opposed to the UK’s three-year program would give me more time to explore different topics before settling into a specialized research direction.

How did your program help equip you for success?

The graduate courses in the physics program here are simply outstanding, often taught by top experts in the field who are also passionate about teaching. The close connection between the department and the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory offers many extra opportunities for thesis research. The well-endowed Simons Center for Geometry and Physics is a major center for mathematical physics in the US. It hosts many excellent seminars by outside speakers as well as offering discounted lunch and afternoon teas to students.

What advice would you offer students interested in pursuing graduate work in physics?

Graduate study presents many opportunities and uncertainties, and everyone has to chart his or her own course. As a newly minted PhD, I feel ill-qualified to give advice, but personally I would suggest the following: go to lots of graduate courses, seminars and department colloquiums to find out what is going on and what interests you. Have conversations with potential advisors early. Give lots of presentations, both in the department and at outside conferences. Finally, prepare early if you want to transition away from academia and take up an industry job after graduation.  

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