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From High School Fellow to PhD Student

28 April 2015

It was only a few years ago that Anffany Chen was a grade twelve student who came to TRIUMF as a physics neophyte. Now, she is a Ph.D. candidate in physics studying condensed matter theory at UBC. Her journey from science enthusiast to emerging physics scholar in just five years is an inspiration to high school students everywhere and a fine example of the power of reaching out to aspiring scientists at an early age.

In high school, Anffany knew she would pursue a career in the sciences but admits she still didn’t “know anything about physics” when she applied to the TRIUMF High School Fellowship program in 2009.

The TRIUMF High School Fellowship program is open to graduating high-school students entering their first year at a recognized post-secondary institution. The Fellowship includes an award of $3,000 and a six-week summer research experience with a research group at TRIUMF. The program’s intent is to motivate graduating high schools students with a passionate interest in science to pursue a career in physics by having them experience a real-life research environment. In Anffany’s case, this worked out in spades.

By the time she completed her fellowship, she knew how to conduct nuclear reactions with the TRIUMF-UK Detector Array (TUDA). TUDA is nuclear astrophysics collaboration between TRIUMF and the University of Edinburgh in the UK interested in nuclear reactions of astrophysical interest. The group was putting together the detector for a new experiment, and Anffany was thrilled to be able to participate in this multi-national scientific project even before going to university!

Anffany participated in every process as an assistant – or a “side kick,” as she called herself, working alongside her supervisor TRIUMF Research Scientist Dr. Pat Walden. “The group from the UK and my supervisor were really patient with me,” she says, “they explained everything they were doing so that I could participate every step of the way. It was really fun.” One of the highlights for Anffany was the TRIUMF undergraduate student symposium at the end of her term where all students were invited to give presentations on their research experience. Her presentation wowed the audience and made her supervisor proud.  

As an undergraduate student at UBC, Anffany worked on projects in different areas such as nuclear astrophysics, numerical relativity, particle physics, and condensed matter physics. Upon graduation, she took an accelerated Master’s degree at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, where she dipped her feet into even more types of physics. It was there that Anffany decided to do research in condensed matter theory, which she decided to undertake as a Ph.D. student at UBC starting in September 2014.

Some condensed matter theorists study crystal phases whose properties depend only on the system topology. As an undergrad Anffany loved topology – the study of how spaces are organized, including objects in spaces and connections between spaces. Her current research at UBC is focused on parafermions, a generalization of the Majorana fermion, which is a potentially useful type of quasi-particle for quantum computing.

“Because these phases [of condensed matter] are topological, they are robust against impurity. In reality crystals are not pure, there’s always impurities. But by using topology you get to have properties that are robust, which I love. I like the simplicity of things, it’s so beautiful.”

Over the past few years, Anffany has learned that being good at physics is all about having the confidence to tackle problems in different ways. She hopes that more experiences like TRIUMF’s Fellowship program will give more young women the confidence and inspiration to go into STEM fields, especially physics – where only about 20% of researchers are female.

“I would like to encourage girls to go into physics. I don’t think there are barriers. I just think they need to be more confident. In this field, you need to try things and see what happens,” says Anffany.

Congratulations to Anffany Chen for her remarkable journey from TRIUMF High School Fellow to Ph.D. at UBC. TRIUMF wishes her all the best in her physics career!

Photo: Anffany (right) and the author enjoying a coffee in the UBC Student Union Building

– by Jacqueline Wightman, Communications Assistant