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The International Physicists' Tournament: a peek into postgraduate research

24 Jun 2019 | David Collomb David Collomb, PhD Student in Condensed Matter Physics at the University of Bath and the President of the International Physicists' Tournament explains the opportunities it offers students.

The International Physicists’ Tournament (IPT) is a tournament for undergraduate physics students to test their physics prowess by spending up to 9 months solving as many of 17 pre-selected unreported problems in physics and defending their solutions at a research-style conference. At the conference, teams representing their nations will defend, challenge and review their findings in a ‘physics fight’. After each ‘physics fights’, teams are graded by a panel of academic researchers and teachers. Following a series of these ‘fights’, the top three ranking teams progress to a final where the winner will be announced as the ‘world champion’ in Physics. 

The tournament goes beyond just another competition between nations for a top-spot in physics. It also boasts unique and exceptional opportunities for the participants to gain a sneak peek into what postgraduate physics research may be like. From something as simple as travelling to another country and giving a presentation on their research, to making an early first step on the research ladder by publishing work in a peer-reviewed journal.

The unsolved and open-ended nature of the problems can result in a more independent investigation compared to typical undergraduate experimental modules, which may present students with experiments with an already well understood and clear ‘end’. Additionally, supervisors of the teams themselves may have limited knowledge of the problem, provoking students to perform a more in-depth and independent literature review, with supervisors taking a more step-back approach compared to the role they may usually take in typical final year experimental modules. The tournament also provokes students to be able to defend their solutions against rigorous questioning and arguments (akin to a PhD viva), which develops their verbal communications skills beyond the given presentation skills students may attain through the traditional curriculum. Furthermore, the marking criteria provided to the jury rewards participants who are able to pinpoint the essential physics and are able to see where a solution can be improved to converge to the true nature and solution of the problem. This pushes students to alter their view of simply ‘winning’ and ‘scoring marks’ and instead provokes students to build upon the solutions presented to them through the ensuing debate stage. Students also have the opportunity to trial their writing skills by publishing their work in an impactless spin-out journal called Emergent Scientist (Em. Sci.) [https://emergent-scientist.edp-open.org/articles/emsci/full_html/2017/01/emsci170008s/emsci170008s.html]. In cases where solutions are particularly strong, participant’s work has been published in impact-welding journals, such as a notable case in 2016 in Physical Review Letters [https://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.119.084301].

These are but a few of the opportunities and benefits students may gain through participating in the IPT. Anyone interested in joining the next edition or has more questions about the tournament is welcome to contact the IPT organizing team.

Photo credits: Clara Beaubis and Florent Florent Daburon de Boisvilliers, Club Photo, EPFL

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