The Postgraduate Diploma Programme at ICTP was founded to help students from the developing world consolidate their skills and knowledge with a view to continuing in international higher education and research. Since 1991, over a thousand students from 84 different countries have graduated from the Diploma Programme, many of whom have gone on to further study and careers in their chosen fields.
Ronald Cortes, a recent Postgraduate Diploma Programme graduate from Colombia, discusses his interest in condensed matter and experiences at ICTP.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m Ronald Cortes, from Colombia. I was born in a small town in the centre of Colombia. My parents are teachers, so they have to move from one town to another for work. So, in my childhood I was going from town to town, but then when I started university, I had to move to the capital because that's where you find the best teaching. I moved there, and studied at the biggest public university in Colombia, the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. If you enter that university, it is an honour.
When did you discover you were interested in physics?
Actually, it was when I was a kid in primary school. My father and mom used to register me in maths contests, which were about solving problems. I never won a contest; I was always in the sixth or seventh place. But it was very interesting. My dad wanted me to study maths. Maybe because he’s a maths teacher, and my mom is also a maths teacher.
What drew you to physics as opposed to maths?
Maths is very abstract, but physics is somehow applicable. And you can see maths in experiments, for example. I think it’s beautiful. Back in my university in Colombia, there was a trend in physics that everyone wanted to study astrophysics or high energy physics. These were the two branches, and nobody in the first place wanted to study condensed matter. Astrophysics has a lot of divulgation. For example, in YouTube, in the Spanish language, there are a lot of divulgators. There are fewer people talking about condensed matter; people don't know about it as much. However, when I took a condensed matter physics class with my professor at the university, I really liked it, and I decided to continue.
Why did you want to take the Postgraduate Diploma at ICTP?
I had a class with a professor at my university in Colombia who had been here at ICTP for a month for a seminar. He talked about ICTP and said that they offer learning opportunities for people in developing countries. So I looked into it online, and applied.
What's your diploma thesis about?
In the first place, I thought I would be focused on studying in one branch, but then I ended up doing something totally different. I thought I was going to do something about topological insulators, topological matter. But then I talked to a professor here, Marcello Dalmonte, who told me to contact a post-doc, Roberto Verdel Aranda, who then showed me all his work, and what he’s doing. I liked it, and so I did that.
We’re doing machine learning; unsupervised learning methods for the directed bond percolation system.
We are using unsupervised learning to see if with these methods, we can characterize a phase transition in this system. We're mainly using principal component analysis in this research [a technique used to transform a large set of variables into a smaller set that retains most of the information in the large set]. So, we use a new dataset made of experimental data, set up simulations, and then transfer the axis of the system and try to characterize this data set with fewer variables.
What were the strengths of the Postgraduate Diploma Programme?
It's a very good opportunity for people who come from developing countries because they don't have so many facilities in the sciences. It’s a really good chance to improve their careers. Also, I really like that it's about people coming from around the world. So, it’s very diverse and we have shared a lot of things with each other. It has been a really good cultural exchange, and very interesting. Also, the courses are good. Some are really hard, but that's okay. Maybe we need more time to process all the information that we’re given, as it is a bit intense.
The programme taught me how to communicate better. We had a course where you had to present something, so we had presentations and really good feedback about how to communicate ideas, how to express yourself, and also how to work in teams.
What challenges do scientists face in Colombia?
Being a developing country, Colombia has many challenges to face. Unfortunately, this means science doesn't really get the attention it deserves, especially when it comes to financially supporting fundamental scientific research . Consequently, many science graduates seek well-paid jobs outside academia. Nevertheless, we have excellent research groups across different universities, and I am optimistic that things will change in the future.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m going to be doing a PhD at SISSA, Trieste, still in condensed matter physics. I would like to use the knowledge that I’ve gained here. I expect to go back to Colombia after a while with what I’ve learned.