Elizabeth Whicheloe, a cherished colleague, urged me to listen to the commencement address by Sau Lan Wu at Vassar College where her grand-daughter is one of this year’s graduating students. Professor Wu, a distinguished particle physicist, has participated in the discoveries of the charm quark, the gluon, and the Higgs particle (the latter as a member of one of the teams of research scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva).
Watching the video of her speech on the Vassar website was both inspirational and humbling. Her life and career is an amazing story of resilience, dedication and contribution. It’s easy today to take access to educational opportunity and gender equality for granted. In the West, we forget the insurmountable career obstacles placed in the way of many women, let alone an immigrant from Hong Kong, even into the 1980s.
Sau Lan Wu’s story begins in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. Her mother was the sixth concubine of a well-known businessman in Hong Kong who discarded them. She says “I grew up with a strong determination to be financially independent of men”! Her mother, now 94, who has been her main inspiration, ensured that she finished secondary education. Sau Lan Wu then applied secretly to colleges in the USA but only Vassar offered her a full scholarship. There, she was supported by the generosity of fellow students and staff. Sau Lan Wu graduated from Vassar with great distinction in 1963.
In her address, she talks movingly about how reading a life of Marie Curie persuaded her to become a scientist and how she had to choose between having children and having a research career. In the end, the PhD students she has supervised, over 50 of them, have become her family.
Towards the end of her speech which has many more amusing anecdotes than I’ve included here, she inspired the class of 2014 with these words:
“In 1963, I was here by the Sunset Lake, just like you. I was overjoyed. Right here, I made the resolution to devote my life to science and to make a significant contribution to humanity. Since then I have experienced the joy of discoveries, in life as in science. The search may be long or difficult. Often times, it is long and difficult. But when obstacles strike, you fall down and you get back up. We need you in every aspect of our world, from science to society to the arts and everything in between. You believe in yourself. You hold true to your determination. And you will do something great.”
If you’re looking for inspiration for a science or careers lesson in the next few days, playing an excerpt from the speech and building a discussion around it about hope and resilience, will charm even the most jaded of your students!
Watch the video here