Chris Yip, like most University of San Diego seniors, is closing in on one of life’s cherished accomplishments: earning a college degree. He, like some others, will graduate next month with a pair of undergraduate degrees, an impressive feat in four years at USD.
Yip’s accomplishment, though, will be doubly impressive as his majors are physics and computer science. He’s already been accepted for a fall graduate program in Quantum Computing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He’s been a model student at USD, participating in a USD summer research program — SURE — and he is a sought-after tutor. Last October, Yip gave a poster presentation on plasma-oriented research at a conference held on the Princeton University campus.
“When I think about my time at USD, I think it’s gone by quickly, but I’ve gotten a lot done,” Yip said. “Given all my classes I feel I’ve squeezed five and a half years into four. It’s been amazing. I know everything I’ve learned will stay with me, it’ll make me a better person and help me in the future.”
Graduation will be a family celebration for the Irvine, Calif., resident. It will certainly be a proud day for USD Physics Professor and Department Chair Greg Severn, PhD, seeing one of his best students achieve personal success.
“He was the first student we called for the S-STEM scholarship,” said Severn of the National Science Foundation-funded scholarship. The scholarship played a big role in Yip’s decision that USD, not Loyola Marymount, and that majoring in physics, not electrical engineering, was the best fit.
“We need high-quality students to realize the quality of our (physics) program,” Severn said. “To see what he’s been able to do at USD, see results of the work that was done to bring really good students like Chris to USD, it’s really gratifying.”
Yip, an honor roll student at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., didn’t take long to make an impact. Though he entered initially as an engineering student, it was his early classwork in two physics classes his sophomore year that confirmed his desire to switch.
“My mindset was more suited to physics because I really liked looking at formulas and wondering where they come from,” he said. “It was just a different kind of creativity for me (than in engineering) and I was better suited to physics.”
Computer science was a less-tasking decision. He was all in. “I was pretty sure I’d stick with computer science as a major because I just loved programming, even if it was only on the side or a supplement to my classes, which has happened a lot,” Yip said.
Putting physics and computer science together clicked. “I was starting to realize that everything was connecting that sophomore year. Some things I’d see in my Circuits class would show up in my math class. I thought maybe I could use the knowledge in computer science to do a final project in my physics class. They really meshed well.”
Severn witnessed firsthand what Yip could do in his Physics 272: Introduction to Optics and Modern Physics class.
“Everyone was learning some pretty complicated physics problems and the course and the book tried to break it down in simpler bits that people could begin to calculate analytically. Chris could not only simulate, but also simulate in full detail. It was ‘I don’t have to do these crazy approximations, I can attack this problem on my own.’ It’s like he had a tool, both in his understanding and on his PC that allowed him to see further than what the other students could do.”
Severn praised Yip’s tutoring approach and more. “He’s a very patient person and he helps the person asking the question really understand their own question and try to solve it from the point of view of not just using this trick or that. He really tries to help them understand what’s going on. His analytical abilities alone make him a great physics major, but he’s able to weave it all together with his ability to code. It’s like he has another set of eyes on the problem that others don’t have.”
“I’ve always been curious about how things work since I was a little kid,” he said. “I’d look at something on the board and say ‘What’s going on behind that?’ I just think it through in my head to see if I can figure it out. If not, I’ll bug my professor. But I often find that if you present me something I don’t know, I’ll always do my best to understand what it means.”
Yip has particularly thrived this academic year. He received a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant to work in Severn’s lab last summer. The project led to the poster presentation he gave at Princeton at the 66th annual Gaseous Electronics Conference.
“At first I was really nervous,” Yip admitted. “I knew I’d be around grad students and people who already had their PhD. I’d really have to know something. The week before we went, Dr. Severn gave me packets to read to help me get up to speed on basic plasmas.”
Severn, though, wasn’t worried. He knew Yip would do fine. “He stood in front of our poster at Princeton and they didn’t know he wasn’t a graduate student. He talked very comfortably about the work he had done. He talked to major research professors, grad students and research staff members. While we were there, Chris told me that attending the conference confirmed that he wanted to go on and do graduate research in physics. This experience let him see that he could.”
He’s finishing up his requirements in both majors this semester. On April 10, Yip presented a project for a computer science class at USD’s annual Creative Collaborations undergraduate research event. Given his success as a tutor, he developed a mobile application for Android devices with two-way voice communications similar to Skype. His project focuses on real-time communication between educators and students who are geographically distant. Add this project to a host of reasons why Yip feels great about his USD experience and about what’s ahead for him at the University of Wisconsin.
“The biggest thing I got from (the Princeton conference) was seeing that whole atmosphere,” Yip said. “Everyone was doing research, everyone was legitimately there because they were curious about what was going on. It’s something I enjoy most about the physics department at USD. Sometimes in class we’ll be going over a concept and someone will just throw out a random question. We’ll take a five-minute break from what we’re doing, flesh out the question and see what’s going on.”
— Ryan T. Blystone