Pupil Pursuing Physics Passion

Cole Coughlin recently completed his joint honours degree in physics and computer science at the University of Manitoba, and will head to Waterloo's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in August.

University of Manitoba graduate Cole Coughlin noticed he had an aptitude for math, physics, and computer science throughout his secondary school days.

"I sort of pictured myself as maybe developing an app and then retiring early, and then going back to school and maybe studying philosophy or something," he said. "But near the end of high school I realized that I could just pursue a topic that I'm very interested in from the beginning like physics."

He completed his joint honours degree in physics and computer science over a period of five years. While physics is his true passion, Coughlin found computer science to be incredibly helpful as well.

"Computer science is now incredibly useful in physics, and it's necessary to know how to code nowadays, so it ended up being a really great degree and has really helped me out in many, many ways," he said.

The pandemic ramped up towards the end of his third year, with classes immediately moving online. In summer of 2020, Coughlin got a position at McGill University researching particle physics.

"If it were a normal summer, I would have been out in Montreal for the summer and working with the group there," he said. "But, I was able to do all my work virtually and had regular meetings with the team and it ended up being a great experience regardless."

Classes remained online the following year, and Coughlin was one of a few Canadians selected for a research position through an international student program with the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland, which ended up being virtual.

"So, there's two nice summer trips that I missed during the pandemic," he said. "Regardless, they were truly incredible experiences, and I'm so lucky to have been selected for those positions."

In August, the University of Manitoba graduate will head to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.

"I'm truly thrilled to be going there. It's one of the most selective institutions in the world for physics," he said. "They select around 25 students every year from many, many different countries and despite being in Waterloo, there's only I think maybe two other Canadians going there along with me."

Coughlin said he has already communicated with some of the students in his cohort.

"They already made a group chat of all the students that'll be going there for the next year, and we all introduced ourselves, and I counted all the countries that everyone is from and it's like 20 different countries the 26 of us are from," he said, "so it's going to be an incredible time and I'm going to make lots of friends from all around the world who I can visit in the future. I couldn't be more excited about it."

The Perimeter Institute offers a one-year master's degree, which is entirely course-based.

"Every course is about five weeks, and we're taking two, maybe three of them at the same time, and it's a 10-month program. Sort of everyone's just working through all the courses together for the first semester and then the second semester you have a bit more choice in the specialization of the classes that you want to go into," Coughlin said.

The Métis student is hoping to specialize in quantum information theory, which he said is becoming increasingly favourable to theoretical physicists.

"It's a sort of new way of looking at physics as we see it today, and hopefully in search of a theory of quantum gravity. We today are unable to unify two of our greatest theories in physics," he said, referring to quantum mechanics and gravity.

"Quantum mechanics has been experimentally shown for over 100 years, and we have an incredible theory that predicts all the things that we see in quantum mechanics for the most part, but we still don't fully understand it, and it tends to confuse physicists regardless all the time," Coughlin said. "But we also have an incredible theory of gravity, which is general relativity, and these two theories seem incompatible. They do not fit together, but they both exist in the same universe, and we know that they have to. So, we've been searching for a theory that will encompass both of them, and we're still searching for one that is able to experimentally show that it is part of the same theory."

The graduate is excited to further pursue this passion for his master's.

"The Perimeter Institute has an incredible faculty that are working on quantum information, and I am thrilled to be able to sit down and talk with many of them over the next year," he said.

Beyond the next year, Coughlin hopes to help in the search for a theory of everything.

"Something that can describe all of the phenomena we see in the universe," he said.

He also plans to obtain his PhD and become a professor.

"I truly love teaching. It's not only a great way to engage with students, but also test your own knowledge, and every time I try to prepare lectures or slides or try to explain an idea to someone else, I learn something in return as well," he said. "Being able to explain these ideas in an engaging and interesting way is truly important."

He credited science communicators like Carl Sagan, John Carroll, Carlo Rovelli, and his own teachers for his decision to pursue physics.

"I think science communication is incredibly important," he said. "I would love to be a professor and conduct my own research and teach as well. That's the dream."

The Red River Métis grad has also been able to teach through the Kinew Métis Council, which he joined when he moved from his hometown of Selkirk to Winnipeg about a year ago. Through the Council, Coughlin has presented on topics such as astronomy and particle physics.

"I gave a very fun and compelling talk about our history of the knowledge of the scale of the universe, and it's quite incredible looking at the sort of turn of events," he said, noting that it took thousands of years, through the evolution of telescopes, for astronomers to realize that other galaxies outside of our own existed.

"For thousands and thousands of years we questioned and thought about how big was this universe of ours? Was it just the earth and the backdrop of the sky? And slowly we built better telescopes and saw some things further away than we expected, and even less than 100 years ago we didn't know that other galaxies outside of our own existed," he said. "Edwin Hubble, with one of the most powerful telescopes at the time, was able to show that objects existed outside of our own universe, which we now call the Milky Way galaxy. But that was the entire universe to us at that point, and since then we've discovered a seemingly infinite number of galaxies."

The budding physicist's talk also covered the fact that the universe extends much further than currently known.

"We don't have any real reason to believe that it doesn't extend much further than we can see, so the universe continues to get bigger and bigger and bigger," he said. "It was a really fun talk to sort of explore that."

The opportunity to present on topics he's enthusiastic about isn't the only benefit Coughlin has received from the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF). Funding through the Post-Secondary Education Support Program has allowed him to focus his time and energy on his education.

"The MMF was a large part of how I was able to focus on school rather than sort of juggling jobs along the side," he said. "That made it possible for me to truly focus on school and on my studies and (to) treat my studies as a job."

Coughlin credits the support from the MMF for his ability to excel beyond his undergrad, from holding his past research positions and his acceptance to Perimeter Institute.

"I was able to focus and put all of my effort into my studies," he added. "It's something I'm truly thankful for, and I'm glad that these services are available to Métis students. It's truly incredible and absolutely important for how I got to where I am."


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