Terence Tai-Li Hwa won the Apker award in 1986 as an undergraduate at Stanford, where he had a triple major in physics, electrical engineering and biology. He won the Apker for his research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) for his conceptual design of an experiment measuring the electro-weak contribution to the muon's g-factor. He went on to earn his PhD in physics in 1990 from MIT, with a joint theoretical and experimental thesis. Today, Hwa is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. His research is in unconventional areas, as he shuttles between statistical physics, molecular biophysics and theoretical genomics. Of his work, he says, “I don't fit into any particular community.” His efforts at creating an interdisciplinary field have been, he believes, a good success.
Established in 1978, the American Physical Society's LeRoy Apker Award recognizes outstanding achievements in physics by undergraduate students, and thereby provides encouragement to young physicists who have demonstrated great potential for future scientific accomplishment.
Born in China, Hwa first came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 15. After completing his three majors from Stanford, Hwa went to MIT, studying statistical mechanics and condensed matter physics. Of the Apker award, Hwa says, “It certainly allowed me to move into whatever non-traditional field I wanted to in graduate school.” At MIT, Hwa worked in both theoretical and experimental physics. He earned his PhD in 1990 working in the area of pattern formation, specifically, the non-equilibrium dynamics of complex systems. Following 3 years as a post-doc at Harvard and another year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Hwa worked briefly as an assistant professor of physics at SUNY-Stonybrook in 1994-95. In 1995, he was hired as an associate professor of physics at the University of California- San Diego. He became a full professor in 1999, and was a Guggenheim fellow visiting the Center for Study in Physics and Biology at the Rockefeller University that year.
Terence Hwa hiking with wife Joyce near Aspen
Today, he continues to teach and do interdisciplinary research at UC- San Diego. Hwa's recent research interest has been in molecular biophysics and genomics. He says that the concepts and methods developed in statistical physics are very useful for the study of genomics because so much of theoretical physics are concerned with detecting and describing patterns. Such pattern detection and description is the necessary first step for progress in genomic research. Advances in genomics and molecular biology, he adds, “bring new challenges and new life to statistical physics.”
As part of the effort to reach the larger physics community, Hwa organized a succesful half-year program at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, CA. The idea is to bring the many interesting, complex biological problems that have arisen through genomics research to theoretical physicists. Through such research, Hwa says theoretical physicists face nothing less than resolving the mysteries of life created by billions of years of natural evolution. “These efforts have been quite well rewarded,” he says of his attempt to create a new, interdisciplinary field. “There has been a very enthusiastic response.”
Hwa has won several awards and grants that he believes have been essential to allowing him to carry on research in a subject matters that until recently “did not belong to any fields and had no official channel of support.” Among these are a Sloan Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund's Innovation in Genomics Award, a Beckman Foundation young investigator award, and an Office of Naval Research young investigator award. “The career path I am taking is an unusual one, and these awards, starting with the Apker Award, are crucial in helping me to overcome the many unexpected difficulties associated with pursuing my kind of path.”