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Q&A with Grace Sommers, Class of 2020 salutatorian

<h6>“Proud Wilsonite” and salutatorian Grace Sommers posing in front of her former residential college.</h6>
<h6>Courtesy of Grace Sommers ’20&nbsp;</h6>
“Proud Wilsonite” and salutatorian Grace Sommers posing in front of her former residential college.
Courtesy of Grace Sommers ’20 

Grace Sommers ’20 was recently named the Latin salutatorian of the University’s Class of 2020. A resident of Bridgewater, N.J., Grace is concentrating in physics with certificates in applications of computing, applied and computational mathematics, and Ancient Roman language and culture. After graduation, Grace will return to the University to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Sommers shared her reflections on her time at the University, her advice to current and incoming students, and her hopes for the future.

The Daily Princetonian: What drew you to physics, computing, and applied math?

Grace Sommers: I’ve always liked physics since I was in grade school. I find it really interesting, being able to kind of understand the building blocks, so to speak, of the universe. And I was fortunate enough in my high school to have a very good physics teacher, and so that really cemented — when I went into Princeton, I already knew I wanted to major in physics. I didn't know what kind of physics, but I knew I wanted to do something more theoretical.

As far as the applications of computing, when I was a senior in high school, I took a computer science class, and not only did I really enjoy it, but I also realized that computing and programming in general is very important for a lot of research in physics. If you’re an experimentalist or if you’re a theorist, running simulations and using computing power to do calculations that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do is very important, so that's why I wanted to pursue that.

And the applied math is both [because] I’m very interested in math, and it overlaps a lot with the stuff that I do in physics, so it was more just broadening but also cementing what I'm studying [in] physics to begin with.

DP: What have you explored through your independent work?

GS: I’ve kind of bounced around a little bit in my independent work, but now it basically settled in what my thesis was on, in the area of condensed matter physics. Condensed matter physics used to be called solid state physics, but it's broader than that. It's a huge area. It deals with anything from superconductors to — you know, the big hullabaloo now is about these things called topological materials. But basically it deals with when you have a lot of electrons or a lot of particles that are strongly attracting, and so it generally falls into the category of many body physics.

My thesis is on a phenomenon called jamming which is a dynamical phenomenon that occurs in systems of hard particles. But I’ve been looking at a spin model that sort of serves as an analogy for this phenomenon, and particularly I’ve been examining the equilibrium statistical mechanics. It’s been really fun learning about spins and various thermodynamical sort of things that go on when you have these unique systems. That's what I want to pursue in graduate school: condensed matter.

DP: What advice would you give someone about navigating senior year or senior year independent work in particular?

GS: I think my advisor, who was Professor [Shivaji] Sondhi in the physics department, has done a really good job of saying this is not just about the finished final project but [about] exposing yourself to different things in your topic. For me, I’ve been learning a lot of the different key methods of statistical mechanics, not just for the particular problem that I’ve been working on, but for [the] future as I go into graduate school and into research, developing those tools. Not just showing off what you did in the year in your thesis, but also actually making it — it’s more than just an assignment. It’s really an investment in what you want to do in the future. So learning as much as you can is really just to your own benefit.

DP: What drew you to Latin and Roman history, and how have you explored those fields at the University?

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GS: From the beginning, I always enjoyed how logical Latin is and how it’s both nuanced and very orderly. I was lucky enough to have some excellent Latin teachers through the six years that I took it in secondary school. When I came into Princeton, I had passed out of the language requirement, but I knew I wanted to keep taking Latin, so I managed to take basically one Latin class a year.

It’s always nice to have something that’s not STEM-related in my schedule as a counterbalance. It allows me to be productive. When my brain is fried from calculating something, I can go and do a different subject and then come back to it.

I’ve really enjoyed the Latin classes at Princeton because in grade school, you’re focused on learning the grammar, learning the words and stuff. But in college, especially at Princeton, it's a lot more. You’re not just saying how to translate the sentence, but you’re studying what it means and stuff. I’m no humanities person, but I do like that aspect of it — understanding it as literature, not just as a matter of translation.

DP: What was it like finding out that you were chosen as the salutatorian?

GS: It was a nice surprise. Dean [Jill] Dolan sent me an email saying, “I have some good news to deliver,” so I knew something good was going to happen. She gave me a call, and that’s when she told me that I was going to get salutatorian. I was definitely excited. I think also I was excited because of how excited she was to tell me — that it kind of conveyed to me that this was a big honor. I can tell from others how it is an achievement, and I am appreciative of that. It was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy period.

DP: What are your duties as the Latin salutatorian?

GS: I’m excited to participate in the commencement. [I’ll be delivering] a 75 to 90-second brief address in Latin, which will be closed captioned for the non-Latin speakers. I have to record that, so I’m looking forward to crafting that address, maybe throwing in some jokes.

It follows a general formula following the tropes of Latin literature, like you invoke the Muses or you make some reference to the battle that you just conquered, the battle being problem sets and essays. There’s a lot of good precedent from looking at past speeches that will kind of give me some inspiration that hopefully it will turn out pretty well for the commencement.

DP: What does being salutatorian mean to you?

GS: I think it’s just a delightful way to sort of cap off my undergraduate career at Princeton. It’s something that stays with you forever. I can always say that I was salutatorian. I’m not sure how much bragging rights that would give me — I’ll use it sparingly — but it definitely is an honor. Especially since Princeton has given me so much in terms of opportunities and in terms of intellectual growth, it's an honor to be recognized in what is a very meaningful ceremony. This commencement ... this is us beginning the next chapter of our lives, and so to have a part of that is definitely very exciting and meaningful.

DP: How has COVID-19 affected your senior year?

GS: I would say I’m probably less affected than most. A lot of both my classes and my research — Zoom has been a sufficient substitute, although not the same, of course. I think I would just count myself as a lucky one compared to people who don't have the same living situation at home or the same opportunities away from Princeton, and different subjects are less conducive to remote research.

As a salutatorian, [virtual commencement] is probably beneficial because I have to record my little speech, and I can take takes. I don’t have to get it right on the first try; it won’t be quite as much pressure. But it will definitely be weird. I don’t think it will have the same sort of emotional intensity and that feeling when everyone’s in the chapel together, like at opening ceremonies and stuff, where you feel everyone having that sense of jubilation, and that won’t be the same over zoom. But I’m still hopeful that the virtual ceremony will work out well, and we’ll be able to have an in-person ceremony next year.

DP: What are your next steps after graduation?

GS: You know, you come into college and they say, “Oh, we want you to change your mind, we want you to change your major and experience new things.” But I basically had the same goals since I came into Princeton or even before, which is that I want to enter academia. After I graduate, my goal would be to get a postdoc position doing research in theoretical physics and then get a faculty position at a research university. There are two main facets of a professor’s job: conducting your own research but also instructing and advising students, and I’m interested in both of those things.

I’m actually coming back to Princeton for graduate school for the next circa five years. I chose Princeton due to a variety of reasons, but not the least of which is just because the entire Physics Department and particularly the condensed matter department is very strong. There are very few places that would be able to really rival it. I guess I know a good thing when I see it, and I guess I decided to continue with that good thing. So I'm looking forward to seeing Princeton from a different perspective as a graduate student.

DP: Outside of the classroom, how do you spend your time?

GS: I was a peer reviewer for the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal. I did that for about two years, and I was actually the copy editor for two semesters of that. In sophomore/junior year, I was part of the organizing team for the Princeton University Physics Competition, which is for high schoolers that come to campus and take a test.

I was the problem “czar” one year, and then the next year, I was the judging chair. So that was fun to be on the other side of the exam; I was grading it instead of taking it. In the past year, I think I’ve kind of scaled down my formal commitments. I’m a member of the Undergraduate Women in Physics group; we do mentorship activities and stuff.

Outside of that, for just leisure, now I’ve been spending most of my time — at night before I go to bed I’ll watch an episode of “Friends.” I sometimes do crosswords, or now I’ve been spending a lot of time with my dog because I’m at home, and she’s at home, and she’s great. And spending time with family, of course.

DP: What advice would you give your first-year self?

GS: The key piece of advice that I would give myself — and I think I followed this pretty well — would be to not be afraid to approach professors, particularly for research. I’ve done research at Princeton the past three years over the summer, and that’s been great. But my one regret is that I didn’t take my freshman summer to do something that was more directly in physics, just because I was kind of like, “Oh, I want to do theory, I don’t want to work in a lab. And I don’t know that much. Who’s going to take me?”

I think I would just tell my freshman self, “Don’t discount yourself before you even ask the question.” In the years since, I’ve had to ask multiple professors before I find someone who’s going to have the time or has a project for me to work on, but it’s worthwhile if you find something that you’re really interested in. So I think that would be my advice: take advantage of opportunities, and don’t be afraid to ask.

DP: What are some experiences you’ve had working with professors or mentors that have shaped you?

GS: The first main project I did in the Physics Department, it turned into a junior paper, but it started in the summer after my sophomore year. That was with Professor Mariangela Lisanti. […] What I was mostly doing was working on simulations of a Milky Way-type galaxy and studying some properties like kinematics and stuff. Even though through the project, I kind of realized that this wasn’t quite the exact field that I wanted to work in, it was such a great experience because of Professor Lisanti.

The experience of working so closely with a professor, not just as like, “Oh, you’re just a lackey that I’ll have to do some calculations, and I’ll try to teach some things,” but like, “you are a contributing member to this research.” Both guiding me and trusting that I would go on in the research process and be willing to make mistakes, but that I would learn from them. That was a very valuable mentorship.

Now I’m working with Professor Sondhi, and I think what’s great about his advisor approach is that he’s really just training me to be a good researcher. He’s told me a few times, “Grace, you do well in classes, you clearly know how to succeed when it comes to getting grades. But being a researcher, it’s a different kind of skill. It’s not just about going, studying something, studying for the test, taking the test, and getting a good grade. It’s about learning how to approach unanswered questions and dive deep into something.” I think he’s really shown the way of how that works.

Besides giving shoutouts to my family and the professors that I mentioned, I’d like to give a shout out to Bridgewater-Raritan School District, which is the school that I went to, because I think one thing that hasn’t changed about me going to Princeton is my fierce loyalty to public schooling. I think a lot of what I mentioned about getting into Latin or getting into physics, a lot of it came from my upbringing in my public school and being exposed to these things that then at Princeton I was able to pursue even more.

DP: Do you think Princeton has changed you? How?

GS: Going to college is so much different from going to high school. In high school, even if you’re a high achieving student, there’s a sense of like, “Oh, this is just what I have to do. I don’t have a choice. I just kind of have to suck it up.”

But at college and particularly at Princeton, there’s this sense of learning both for its own sake and also learning to enrich yourself and to hopefully enrich the world. Obviously, some people are in majors that are a bit more outward looking than physics, a bit more beneficial to the whole world. But I do think physics can play a role in helping Princeton’s motto [“In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity”].

At Princeton, my classmates and my professors and I have striven as well to take advantage of all these opportunities. Why is liberal arts or why is any type of learning important? It’s not only what we learn but the values that we develop. And if I were a humanities major, I would probably have some eloquent quote I could pull out from some book.

I’ll just say that Princeton has made me a more aware person of the role of higher education in general and why is it important and how learning can be such a great thing. It’s not just a job ’til you’re 18. It’s a lifelong thing.

Grace’s recorded Latin salutatorian speech will be part of the University’s virtual commencement for the Class of 2020, scheduled for Sunday, May 31, 2020. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021.

Read our Q&A with Class of 2020 valedictorian Nicholas Johnson ’20 here.

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