Meet Our Graduate Students
Meet Matthew Schmitt
Who inspires you?
Among physicists, I think Landau and Einstein are both great. Although they made deep and fundamental contributions to our understanding of the world, I am mostly inspired by the breadth of their interests. Among non-physicists, I think Stefan Zweig wasan impressive character. He also demonstrated wide-ranging interests in literature and the arts, but he inspires me mostly because of his style of writing. His ultimate goal was clarity, and he achieved this by iteratively and thoroughly pruning his works of anything superfluous. All scientific writers could take a lesson from him! My parents inspire me for their adventurousness and curiosity. Despite growing up on a farm, far from any passionate scientists or philologists, my dad was and is eager to read about science as well as the classics (including Zweig!), while my mom’s desire to experience new cultures has also shaped me immensely.
What are you fans of?
I am of course a “fan” of physics. In the past I have really enjoyed reading about the history of physics both through biographies (for example, Farmelo’s “The Strangest Man” aboutDirac, and Feynman’s famous “Surely You’re Joking”) and through actual histories of physics, such as those by Max Jammer.
Outside the realm of physics I have an unhealthy obsession with classical music (mostly piano music), and play piano myself. My favorite composers are Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin, and Prokofiev and I’m a big fan of the pianists Seong-Jin Cho, Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov and Víkingur Ólafsson (my thoughts on 20th century pianists are too long to write about here!). I think I feel the same way about music as many others do about sports.
Why did you choose to study physics?
Initially I thought I wanted to study math. It wasn’t until I went to Germany that I realized that through physics you get to learn really high-level math, and also use it to understand reality, or some approximation to reality.I have never regretted my choice to study physics, and I appreciate that it has enabled me to explore biology and machine learning. Of course at some point I realized that it’s possible to study those things with a background in applied mathematics or similar, but I think my physics background has served me well and the centrality of approximation and models in physics have shaped the way I think more generally.
Why did you choose UChicago?
I chose UChicago because it’s an amazing place to study soft matter physics. In addition to numerous theory groups, you are surrounded by experimentalists who study all sorts of things, from granular systems to bacteria to cells to organisms. This makes it a great place to get involved in theoretical or computational physics, since you will never run out of opportunities for collaboration. Plus, exposure to experimentalists is good for keeping you grounded! I am personally working with Vincenzo Vitelli, using machine learning to investigate force generation in cells. We are working in collaboration with Margaret Gardel (UChicago) and Patrick Oakes (Loyola U, Chicago). This has been a very exciting project and I have learned a lot!
What are the best things about your PhD program?
The faculty and administration have really struck me for their commitment to open communication. Everyone cares how you’re doing, and understands that you have a life beyond the lab (or computer). Faculty members I’ve encountered expect a lot from you, but they recognize that graduate school is where scientists are trained. They know that you are not an expert (yet), that you will make mistakes, and that many situations will be new for you. This growth mindset helps to keep curiosity at the center of your research, and makes working with both faculty and other grad students extremely fulfilling. The administration has also been helpful in navigating the inevitable stressors arising from grad school. It’s reassuring to be able to talk openly with them, since they have seen hundreds of PhD students before you who had the same problems. This places the admins in a unique position to be able to give you solid advice.
What was the best surprise about UChicago or life in Chicago?
Before moving to Chicago I was very concerned about leaving Munich and all its cultural offerings – always with cheap tickets for students – behind me. I didn’t need to be so concerned, because Chicago is also a hotbed of cultural activity! There is always something to do, especially as some events have started returning in 2021. I was personally very happy to discover the Grant Park Music Festival, which has both free and cheap tickets for classical music concerts. I also went to the Ravinia Festival north of Chicago for a concert – they have cheap student tickets too.
If you could share any advice to your colleagues, what would it be?
My advice is to forget the image of the big-brain physicist, and realize that your skills are enough to be a greatscientist. You don’t need to be a math genius to be good at physics, and you don’t need to remember the differences between the Debye and Einstein models of solids. The most impressive physicists I have ever encountered are not the ones who came up with someequation and got their name attached to it, but the ones who are organized, collaborative, and curious. I’m glad the GRE is being done away with in admissions considerations, because the ability to do good science depends on so much more than your ability to remember the scaling exponents of the Ising model. Harness whatever skills you have, and recognize that others will have different skills with which they can produce equally exciting science.