Zequn Li '16 Wins Top Prize of National Science Competition

by Maroof Haque '15
Zequn Li '16 (Photo: Michael Branscom)
Zequn Li '16 presents his work at the New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology Conference at the Franklin Institute. (photo: Michael Branscom)

Entering college as the winner of a national essay competition is not a common feat, even at a school like Swarthmore. Zequn Li '16, however, arrived at the College as the winner of the New Cosmic Frontiers International Science Essay Competition on the Nature of Our Universe and its Habitats. The competition, which celebrates the centennary of the birth of Sir John Templeton, is led by The University of Chicago and is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. For his essay, "Speaking of Stars," Li won the top high school prize of $25,000 and the opportunity to present his work to the New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology Conference at the Franklin Institute earlier this month.

Li's essay explores the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Because of the prevalence of rocky planets like Earth and the basic molecules of life, Li argues that intelligent life existing somewhere other than Earth is very probable. However, humanity's struggles to yet discover any life are due to how little mankind understands its own origins and the lack of technology to communicate to other civilizations.

"It's far more plausible to assume there exists technology better than radio, rather than that humans are special and central to the universe," he concludes.  Li is thrilled his strong passion for physics and astronomy captivated others enough to earn him an award.  He finds that the award is an exciting opportunity that opens a door to further developing his interests. 

Originally from Qingdao, China, Li's family owned only a small television set upon first immigrating to the United States, which was mainly used to improve his parents' English.  "We didn't have cable," Li says, "but there was public television, and on public television is an amazing show called NOVA."

Once he discovered NOVA, a program that documents a wide range of science topics from marine biology to quantum physics, Li anticipated the release of a new episode every week, often begging his parents to let him stay up an hour past his bedtime to watch it. Since discovering the show, Li has been fascinated by mathematics, physics, and the natural sciences in general.

Li, a native of Wilmington, Del., is continuing to explore his interests astronomy, math, and physics at Swarthmore. He is currently enrolled in Spacetime, Cosmology, and Quanta, co-taught by Associate Professor of Astronomy David Cohen and Associate Professor of Physics Catherine Crouch, and hopes to delve into higher-level courses and partake in research work as well. Li is also taking a few courses outside his primary interests.

"I've learned so much already about subjects I've never touched and subjects I once thought I knew," says Li of his experience at Swarthmore so far.  "The atmosphere for collaboration is amazing and I love both the strong academics and the close relationships I've already made after only a month on campus."

Drawn to Swarthmore by its strong campus community and liberal arts curriculum, Li finds there is nowhere else he would rather be.