My journey towards Cambridge started in earnest during my Honours year (2015). Honours in Physics at Adelaide has coursework and research components. In the first semester, I started my Honours project with Tony Williams and Martin White as supervisors; both are researchers in theoretical physics at the University of Adelaide. The options for a topic were fairly broad. I wanted to do something which had elements from many different fields in theoretical physics: analytical, computational, theoretical, particle or astrophysical. They introduced me to Soumya Rao, a post-doc who among other things researches a special model of dark matter where the particles have an electric or magnetic dipole moment. He wanted to combine his models with a new paper released the previous month (Vincent et. al. 2015) which suggested it may be detectable in the sun. Martin recognised one of the authors with whom he collaborates regularly and arranged for us to get in contact with Pat Scott (Imperial College London) and Aaron Vincent (Durham University). The first half of the year was spent confirming that there would be some form of measurable effect, through a mix of theoretical calculations and elementary simulations. In this time, I even found a crucial error in their work, which they have since fixed (Vincent et. al. 2016). On top of this, I was also studying coursework and doing a bit of first-year demonstrating on the side.
Also at the beginning of the year, I began sitting on the Office of Learning and Teaching Expert Panel. Backtracking, the previous year I had received a phone call from the office of Christopher Pyne (the then-education minister) asking me to submit a resume for a position on a “board”. I obliged, and hadn’t given much more thought to it until December, when waiting in the Qantas lounge after the flight I had been on was overbooked, received a call inviting me to join the Office of Learning and Teaching as a student representative. I happily obliged, and the first meeting was in Canberra in late March. I began quite flummoxed with the technical jargon and background of the national university system, but quickly cottoned on to the purpose of the OLT: to disseminate grants and awards to university teachers across the country to encourage best practice teaching. I would later attend another 5 meetings in Sydney and Melbourne throughout the year and more into this year, but it was all thrown into turmoil after the program was cut in the 2015 budget after we had had just one meeting.
Also in late April, I gave up my role as president of AUScA after two terms, and it was dutifully filled by Brittany who turned her secretarial skills into managerial ones in a very effective way. I moved into the treasury portfolio to stay involved and help prepare the new committee. Nevertheless, I didn’t need to do much because she was starring in her new role.
The semester came and went very quickly (time flies when bogged down in Data Analysis assignments) and towards the end of exams, I began to contemplate what I would do next year. Having spent time in England and knowing the prestige of institutions like Cambridge, I wanted to give myself a challenge. I emailed my supervisor Martin, who had previously done his PhD in Cambridge, and that sent the ball rolling. During the mid-year break, he spent some time in England and Cambridge and floated the idea to a number of academics there, who apparently (according to Martin) were impressed. He seemed pretty confident I could get in, which helped, though there was the major issue of how to pay the high course and living fees.
I attended, with about 50 or so other prospective hopefuls, a seminar on prestigious scholarships which included the Gates Scholarship (for Cambridge) the Rhodes Scholarship (for Oxford), the Fullbright Scholarship (for America) and the John Monash Scholarship (for anywhere but Australia). The first one due was the John Monash, an arduous application requiring about 2,500 words of prose about future careers and ‘benefit to Australia’, which is very hard to write without sounding (or feeling like sounding) narcissistic. Having applied, and coerced some referees to write references, I managed to get a state-level interview. I hadn’t interviewed properly for a long time, and was in hindsight perhaps a little overwhelmed by it all. I did all right, but wasn’t quite up to the required standard and didn’t make it through to the national round, but only just.
Late July was a period of downturn. I had been going pretty much non-stop since the beginning of the year, and my motivation was starting to wane. There was a week or so when much of the rest of my office was away at a conference that I hardly got any work done at all. It started to pick up, however, when the new semester started. I finally got the package in August, and began to run code in earnest throughout September and October. I wrote up my thesis, submitted all of my assignments, and had a week or so of proof-reading at the end. During this time, I submitted my application to Cambridge. I had written an application form for Imperial College London, but didn’t end up submitting it. The application form for Cambridge included sections applying for the Gates Cambridge and Cambridge Trust scholarships, which I had been considering for an extended period but ended up settling on a much-abbreviated version of my John Monash application. I also submitted an application to the University of Adelaide, as a back-up.
I submitted my thesis at the end of October, and sat my final exams through November. The final assessment was an interview with a panel of 5 academics where we each had to defend our work. I knew mine back-to-front and the format suited me well, and I was awarded the HS Green prize for the highest mark in the theory class.
Now that the Honours year was over, I could finally relax, though the forthcoming year was laced with uncertainty. In early November, I was invited to an informal Skype interview with potential supervisors from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge to assess my character and suitability for a PhD there. It was a rather relaxed affair, much like talking to an academic supervisor. Apparently I impressed them, because on the 25th of November, not two days after my thesis interview, I received a conditional offer of admission to the University of Cambridge. I was very excited; potentially months of uncertainty had been cut short. Nevertheless, I still accepted my Adelaide offer as well, because I had no idea whether I could get a scholarship to afford to study in the UK. Things progressed well into the summer. In early December I was offered a position at Darwin College, a graduate only college. Going into the new year, I still needed to secure funding and approached it with a sense of nervous trepidation. I refused to get too excited for fear of not being able to secure funding, much to the ire of those around me.
- Vincent, A.C., Scott, P. and Serenelli, A (2015) “Possible indication of momentum-dependent asymmetric dark matter in the sun” Physical Review Letters 113:081302
- Vincent, A.C., Scott, P. and Serenelli, A (2016) “Updated constraints on velocity and momentum-dependent asymmetric dark matter” Submitted to Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics arXiv:1605.06502