Fourth-year Baumgart wins Gates scholarship

By Andrew Moesel

Fourth-year physics concentrator Matt Baumgart was awarded the Gates Cambridge Foundation Scholarship last week, making him the third University student to earn the honor in the program’s three year history. Baumgart will join 41 other American students, chosen from over 500 applicants, at Cambridge next year to pursue his interests in physics and mathematics at Trinity College.

“Anytime you’re given something this prestigious and the chance to go abroad it’s nothing if not exciting,” Baumgart said of the opportunity. “I always wanted to study abroad but because of the way prerequisites work in the sciences, you can’t take a quarter off and get back in a sequence. It’s finally my chance to go abroad.”

Bill Gates and his wife Melinda started the scholarship trust in 2001 for students who display outstanding academic merit and impressive leadership potential in their field. The scholarship offers a one-year master’s degree program to students outside the United Kingdom, and covers $32,000 in tuition, $750 for travel expenses, and roughly $14,000 in annual spending money for academic supplies and living expenses.

Next year, there will be over 250 Gates scholars from 54 countries studying at Cambridge. These scholars come from a variety of fields, including chemistry, musicology, economics, and medieval and Renaissance literature.

All the Gates winners from the University, though, have been primarily involved in the sciences, two pursuing Ph.D.s in physics and one deferring entrance to medical school. “Cambridge is a popular choice for scientists who want to study in Britain,” said Nancy Jacobson, an academic advisor in the college.

Often, science concentrators in the College do not feel encouraged to study abroad because they are required to take many courses in sequences. Also, those pursuing graduate study in science may want to finish longer programs as soon as possible, so a one-year scholarship may be more appealing than the Marshall Program, also at Cambridge, that lasts two years. “All three of our students have specifically wanted a one-year program abroad,” said Susan Art, dean of student in the College.

“It’s wonderful for an American scientist to have a chance to see how science happens elsewhere because there’s really a lot of difference,” Art said. “Traditionally in England, science is a lower budget enterprise, and there’s a big premium put on the clever experiment.”

At Cambridge, Baumgart will obtain a British degree–Part III of the Mathematical Tripos in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics. Baumgart described the degree as somewhere between a bachelors and masters degree because there is no thesis requirement.

To be considered for the scholarship, students must fill out a supplementary form to the regular Cambridge graduate application, which must be submitted by November of the year prior to matriculation. The pool of applicants is then short-listed to students who attend a personal interview in Annapolis, Maryland, and the decisions are announced in late February.

“These students are among America’s best and brightest young men and women,” said Professor Sir Alex Broers, chairman of the Gates Cambridge Trust and vice chancellor of the University. “We are delighted that they will be coming to Cambridge where they will join Gates Scholars from around the world.”

The application process is not known for being as competitive or involved as well known programs like the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. “It’s very different from something like the Rhodes scholarships,” Art said. “We don’t really recruit students , but we search for students and put the decision before them. After that, it involves a process of getting faculty interviews and endorsements.”

The University does try to select and encourage those students it thinks have a good shot at succeeding and who would likely also have an interest for studying at Cambridge for one year after graduation. “I think we’re doing pretty well,” Art said.

“As far as I know, Matt is the only one who applied,” she said, noting that the University does not track applicants to the program. “I think he’s a great candidate because he’s a very good student, and there’s a very nice match between his background and interests and the field of study at Cambridge and that’s a very important part of this scholarship.”

Baumgart was contacted by Art last spring as a good potential candidate. After he decided to apply, he set about preparing for the intensive personal interview with a physics professor, focusing on discussing the broader impact of his studies in science.

“There was a famous physicist on the panel, so it was slightly intimidating to have someone that prestigious questioning me,” Baumgart said of the interview in Maryland.

The Gates scholars come from a variety of different collegiate backgrounds. While most of the recipients come from upper tier private universities–Harvard and Yale both had five this year and Princeton three–large state schools are also well represented, including two students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Since his second year at Chicago, Baumgart has been working with professor Melvin Shochet on a CDF collider detector at Fermi Lab.

“The summer after my second year I worked on site at Fermi lab helping to program some of the hardware for a specific piece of the detector called the silicon vertex tracker which allows us to detect a B quark a million times faster,” he said. “It’s a really important new device we have.”

This year, Baumgart has been working at Fermi on his thesis, which undertakes observation of decay from a Z boson to a pair of B quarks.

“This is important because the goal is to use this decay to tune the detector for more interesting B events,” he said. “Specifically it should help us to define the mass of the top quark and it might also help in discovering the Higgs particle.”

In addition to his studies, Baumgart is interested in modern dance and is an active member of UC Dancers.

Although Baumgart feels that his experience at Chicago as well as the quality of the physics and math courses he was able to take here have prepared him well for next year, he is still anxious about getting his work done. “My biggest worry is making proper use of my time,” he said. “There’s this myth in physics and math that you do all your best work when you’re young.”

After Cambridge, Baumgart plans to pursue a Ph.D. program in physics. He has been accepted by Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Princeton, Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, Caltech, and Stanford but is still waiting to hear back from the Universities of California at Berkely and Santa Barbara. He intends to decide on a program within the month.