Meet William Berdanier, UT’s Latest Marshall Scholar

William Berdanier, a senior majoring in mathematics and physics honors in UT’s Dean’s Scholar’s program, will be heading to the United Kingdom next year to earn a master’s degree at Issac Newton’s old stomping grounds: the University of Cambridge. As a recently selected Marshall Scholar, Berdanier will pursue one of the oldest degrees in the world on a full scholarship.

The Marshall is one of academia’s most elite scholarships. In last year’s competition, 981 applicants competed for just 36 spots. In the scholarship’s 59-year history, 22 UT students have been named Marshall Scholars—eight of them since 2001, according to the Daily Texan.

While at UT, Berdanier participated in the Freshman Research Initiative, worked with Gennady Shvets Research Group on metamaterials, and studied plasma physics with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Last summer, he studied abroad at the University of Würzburg in Germany, where he worked on a project concerning theoretical condensed matter physics. Now he’s working on his senior thesis and planning his big move across the pond.

Berdanier talked to the Alcalde about the elegance of physics, his physicist idol, and becoming a Marshall Scholar.

When did your interest in math and science begin? 

Really since I was a little kid. My dad is an electrical engineer, so he helped me with science fairs and things like that from the time I was in kindergarten. But I didn’t decide that I wanted to do physics until I started learning about electricity and magnetism a little later on.

Who most inspired you to pursue physics and mathematics?

Initially, it was probably my dad.  Later on, what really motivated me to keep going in physics was just the beauty of it, and reading articles by famous physicists who argue persuasively that physics is a really interesting and mathematically elegant science.

You’re from Boulder, Colo. Why did you decide to come to UT? 

Well, UT is a phenomenal physics institution, in the top 20 in the world. I thought, ‘If I come to UT, I’ll have the opportunity to interact with amazing faculty.’ Additionally, I’m in the Dean’s Scholars Program, which is a small community, and that program was very motivating for me to come here.

How did UT help you become a Marshall Scholar? 

UT has provided me a ton of support. The Dean’s Scholars Program provided me with a lot of impetus for getting into research early, and the experiences with faculty in small-class situations have really shaped my ability. Getting a lot of close contact with professors has been really helpful.

Who is the first person you told when you learned you’d won the scholarship?

My mom. First I called family and then my girlfriend. I was on campus, so I went over to see the scholarships advisor for the Marshall and the Rhodes, Dr. [Larry] Carver, and he was really excited, of course.

The Marshall Scholarship can be used at any college in the United Kingdom. Why did you pick Cambridge? 

Well, it’s really for this program called “Part III of the Mathematical Trios.” It’s one of the oldest degrees in the entire world. It’s a top master’s in math, although in England, math includes theoretical physics. It provides me with a lot of opportunity to learn about subjects I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. If I went to graduate school in the United States, I probably wouldn’t be able to take very many graduate math classes or very many graduate engineering courses, but here I can do anything.

Cambridge is really historically famous for mathematics. Issac Newton developed calculus to describe gravity there, and even today some of the most famous string theorists in the world are at Cambridge. It’s really the place to be if you want to do theoretical physics.

If you could high-five any famous physicist, who would it be? 

Probably [Richard] Feynman. Of course, he won the Nobel Prize and developed quantum electrodynamics, one of the most successful theories in the history of physics. He also had all of these eccentric passions that I think are really amazing. He played the bongos and was involved in drama. Basically, he had this other side that was not just physics. I really want to keep that up in my own life, too.

Photo courtesy William Berdanier.


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