Fourth-year to study applied mathematics with Churchill Scholarship

Seth Musser says Einstein sparked early interest in sciences

Seth Muller
Fourth-year Seth Musser
Photo by
Jean Lachat
Mark Peters
News Director and Social Sciences SpecialistUniversity Communications

Fourth-year Seth Musser has won a Churchill Scholarship, the most prestigious foreign fellowship for students in the sciences. The scholarship offers Musser full funding to pursue a master’s degree in applied mathematics at the University of Cambridge, beginning in fall 2017.

Musser said the courses he will pursue at Cambridge will provide the mathematical foundation he needs to prepare him for research in high-energy theory—specifically, the quest to find string theory’s implications for the observable world and testing it and other theories proposing to unify the four fundamental forces.

“The opportunity to study at Cambridge is an unparalleled chance for me to spend an entire year solely focused on learning theory,” said Musser, who plans eventually to pursue a doctoral degree in theoretical physics. “The mathematics program is known for being exceptionally rigorous and for presenting things in elegant ways that emphasize symmetries. It will provide me a firm base on which to build future research.”

Musser, who will graduate this spring with honors from the College in mathematics and physics, is one of 15 scholars selected from the United States. He is the 14th UChicago student to win the award, which was announced Jan. 26.

“The Churchill Scholarship is a fitting recognition of Seth’s creativity and hard work, but also an intellectual curiosity that gives shape to his long-term interests in mathematics and theory,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “We are very proud to see our undergraduates build their engagement with original research into plans for innovative graduate study and professional work. We commend Seth warmly on this accomplishment.”

Movie, Einstein provide early inspiration

Musser is currently pursuing research with William Irvine, associate professor of physics with the James Franck and Enrico Fermi institutes, conducting simulations to study how wings perform in a superfluid—a liquid with zero viscosity that flows without loss of kinetic energy.

“Seth demonstrates tremendous engagement with the research and great promise as a scientist,” Irvine said. “I have every confidence that he will flourish at Cambridge and beyond.”

Musser grew up in rural Myerstown, Penn., and said his interest in physics began in first grade while watching the movie “Home Alone,” in which the main character constructs a series of Rube Goldberg machines to deflect a pair of burglars after his parents left him on his own. “I was endlessly fascinated by those elaborate traps and mechanical systems,” he said.

At age 12, Musser read a biography of Albert Einstein and learned the theoretical physicist knew calculus by age 14. “I was worried,” Musser said. “In my mind, that meant I had two years to learn it.” He lobbied his local high school principal to let him take advanced math classes, sitting outside his office until he relented. “I had a fire lit under me,” Musser said, “being behind Einstein.”

Each summer at UChicago, Musser took part in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates, a competitive program that funds undergraduate students pursuing scientific research. His original work on Riemann ellipsoids, produced during his second summer in the program, earned him a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in spring 2016.

Musser has served as a mathematics tutor, leading twice-weekly tutorial sessions for students taking introductory calculus courses, and is now a reader in the Department of Mathematics.

Each year, the College may endorse up to two Churchill candidates for consideration at the national level. Musser was supported throughout his application process by the College Center for Scholarly Advancement, which supports all undergraduates and College alumni through the highly competitive application processes for prestigious national scholarships and fellowships.