Yong Wei Chong Gabrielle ’14 Wins $50,000 First Prize in International Science Essay Contest

September 21, 2012

A Wellesley student has won first prize in an international essay competition that asks students to answer the “Big Questions” of the universe.

Yong Wei Chong Gabrielle ’14, from Perak, Malaysia, received the $50,000 first prize for college students in the New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology International Science Essay Competition on the Nature of our Universe and its Habitats.

The competition is designed to inspire young people to pursue scientific knowledge and become the original, forward-thinking Big Question thinkers of tomorrow. The four Big Questions, which serve as the theme of the New Frontiers program, address the issues of whether our universe is unique, what its earliest state was, and the existence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence.

The question posed to Yong Wei in the competition was, “What is the origin of the complexity in the universe?”

Yong Wei, who majors in Philosophy, took a different approach to writing her essay, which is entitled “A Letter to My Dearest Newborn Baby Brother.”

“I stumbled across Aaron Freeman's short piece, "Planning Ahead Can Make a Difference in the End," on NPR, which is a fictional eulogy from the perspective of a physicist,” she said. “That gave me an idea for writing the flipside of the story: a tribute not to a dying or dead person, but to someone who has just been born. So I wrote a letter to a fictional newborn baby brother.

“Focusing on a single human life allowed me to write about the layers upon layers of complexity in the universe. It also allowed me to write from the perspective of someone curious and completely awestruck at the universe.”

Yong Wei’s advisor, Professor Eugene Marshall, praised the essay for its unusual style. “It combined both cosmological speculation with a kind of real, personal, human perspective, which I think was really appealing to the panel of judges.”

Marshall added, “One of the greatest benefits of a liberal arts college like Wellesley is to have a space to ask the big questions of the universe and to do so in an interdisciplinary manner.”

This October, Yong Wei will travel to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to present her essay at a New Frontiers conference with other student winners and grant recipients.

The New Frontiers International Essay and Grant Competition is funded by the John Templeton Foundation and directed by Donald G. York, Horace B. Horton Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. It will award over $4 million in research grants to 20 scientists and $200,000 to student essayists worldwide.

--By Gabrielle Linnell '13