When Jenny Wu found out she had received the Marie Curie Sklodowska scholarship, she was overjoyed. The award validated the decision she had made earlier to apply to one of the world’s leading research universities to study physics.
“I was very honoured to have received this award,” Wu said. “It definitely reminded me that women had a place in the physics community, and it inspires me to strive to be worthy of an award bearing Marie Curie’s name.”
The University of Toronto has a proud history of educating pioneers in physics, such as Nobel laureates Bertram Brockhouse and Arthur Schawlow. But Marie Curie has a unique place in the scientific pantheon: the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the only one to win it twice.
In 2007, to honour her groundbreaking work, the Marie Curie Sklodowska Association set up a scholarship in her name. The award is presented each year to outstanding female physics students at the University of Toronto.
For Wu, the fascination with Marie Curie goes back a long way. “During high school, my physics teacher loved to tell us about how even Curie’s cookbook is still radioactive from the samples that she used to carry around, and must be sealed away.”
And like her illustrious predecessor, Wu is passionate about pursuing breakthroughs that will have a positive social impact.
During her first and second years, she worked at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, part of the University Health Network. As a summer research student, she was given an opportunity to lead an exciting project. “We were making a prototype medical device that could deliver and monitor light as part of a cancer treatment for hollow organs such as the bladder and the throat. It was minimally invasive, which means that it got rid of cancer cells with the least amount of damage to the healthy cells. We’re hoping to make treatments like these a reality.”
In her fourth year, she worked on a research project on theoretical quantum physics with Professor Daniel James. “It was actually my first time doing theoretical research,” Wu said. “While it’s very challenging, it’s also been a lot of fun.” The future is an exciting prospect for Wu, as she looks forward to continuing her studies and earning a PhD.
Wu sees this as an exciting time in quantum physics. “Quantum physics has two very exciting applications right now,” she said. “One is in speeding up telecommunications, the other is quantum computing.” Rather than using the traditional zeros and ones encoded in ‘bits’, the properties of quantum physics can be used to make quantum bits, or ‘qubits,’ which are capable of holding a lot more information. Qubits could then be used to speed up the process of calculations and vastly increase the speed of computing. A quantum computer would use qubits to solve problems or simulate physical systems that even the latest traditional computers are not capable of doing. “We’re quite far from that, but we are taking little steps to build it eventually,” Wu said.
As she explores different options for future research, one aim remains central to her work—an aim that echoes all true pioneers in her field: “I really want to work on something that’s wholly new and contributes to the knowledge database.”
Story by Amy Chen
LIFE IN MARS:
(above) Jenny Wu in the MaRS Building where she does research. Photo: Jackie Shapiro.