Yohanes Surya: Boosting brilliant minds
A dedicated teacher, a brilliant physicist and a strong believer in Indonesia’s people, Yohanes Surya is convinced that an Indonesian will win a Nobel Prize by 2020. Surya believes that once students begin conducting research under the tutelage of Nobel Prize winners, the quality of their research will soar.
“The Nobel Prize is certainly within our grasp,” he says, unshakable in his belief and optimism. “It will not be long until Indonesia grabs a Nobel Prize.”
The seventh of nine children, Surya grew up loving physics and showed an incredible aptitude for science and technology.
Although he was a gifted child, he dared not hope to attend university because his parents could not afford to send his siblings to higher education. His mother sold traditional cookies to supplement the family income and his father was a retired soldier. But his older siblings, who were already working when he graduated from high school, pooled their resources to support his education at the physics department at the University of Indonesia’s School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.
After obtaining his undergraduate degree in 1986, he went on to pursue a master’s and doctorate in physics at the College of William and Mary in the United States. He attained his postgraduate degrees in 1990 and 1994, respectively, and received the highest honors possible for both.
Having completed his tertiary education, Surya began working as a consultant in theoretical physics at the US Nuclear Physics Center in Virginia. Although this work earned him a green card to stay in the US as a permanent resident, he decided to return to Indonesia.
Contrary to the prevailing belief that those who graduate overseas tend to stay abroad, Surya claimed that most scientists who obtained their degrees abroad “long to return to Indonesia, provided that they can contribute their skills and research to help their country”.
In his case, he was eager to apply his skills in training the most outstanding Indonesian students to bring glory to their country by winning the most prestigious physics and mathematics Olympiads and world championships.
When he returned to Indonesia, Surya became a lecturer and researcher for the graduate program at the University of Indonesia in the field of nuclear physics. He also began training students to participate in the International Physics Olympiad.
Through his training programs (from 1993 to 2007), which emphasized “fun and applicable physics”, his students won 54 gold medals, 33 silver medals and 42 bronze medals at various international science and physics competitions. In 2006, one of his students achieved the Absolute Winner (World Champion) accolade at the 37th International Physics Olympiad in Singapore.
These extraordinary accomplishments allowed Surya to contact premier academic institutions in the US to seek enrollment and scholarships for the students.
After reviewing the students’ academic records, Princeton University accepted one of his students, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) chose five, Stanford University invited one student and the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) admitted one student.
Two of the students were under the direct supervision of Nobel Prize laureates while attending their prestigious institutions.
Oki Gunawan, who participated in the International Physics Olympiad in 1993, was supervised by Daniel Chee Tsui, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics. After earning his doctorate from Princeton University in 2007, Oki enrolled in a postdoctoral program at IBM, New York.
Evelyn, who participated in the International Physics Olympiad in 2002, is now studying at Stanford University and assisting Douglas Osheroff, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Surya insists that Indonesia is thriving in brilliant young minds that can maximize their potential not only for winning the Nobel Prize but ultimately to help build Indonesia’s science and technology sectors.
His current project is The Indonesian Nobel Foundation, which aims to produce 30,000 PhDs in science and technology by 2030. The foundation endeavors to send 3,000 students on full or partial scholarships to the best universities in the world until they have achieved a doctorate.
“China produced 30,000 PhDs in science and technology between 1985 and 2005,” he said. “They must be the main reason propelling China’s exceptional progress in the past decade.”
Surya trusts that the search for the initial 3,000 students will not be difficult. In 2005, he conducted a test taken by 1,500 students at Jakarta. The astounding results reveal that 300 students had an IQ of 140, while 44 had an IQ above 150. He was quick to point out that Albert Einstein had an IQ of 150.
“That’s just Jakarta,” he added. “What about other areas? I’m sure that there are many more exceptional students in Indonesia.” The question is, would these students return to Indonesia after receiving their doctorates? Surya is certain they would. One of his former students, Hendra Kwee, who participated in the International Physics Olympiad in 1997 and earned his doctorate in 2007 from the College of William and Mary, is now back in Indonesia to train the current Indonesian Physics team for the Olympiad.
Others like him would be committed to returning to their homeland when there are laboratories and research centers for them to develop and contribute their skills, he added.
What Surya and the nation’s other scientists need now is public support to make his dreams a reality. To his satisfaction, the Education Ministry has pledged to provide scholarships for the winners of the International Physics Olympiad.
On Aug. 9, 2009, a charity event organized by D&D General and the Warna Warni organization will honor the students with cash awards. According to Surya, such events help to recognize the students’ accomplishments and stimulate others to follow in their footsteps. “Education,” he reminded us, “is the key to a nation’s advancements. These students deserve the attention and support of various organizations, corporations and the government. In time, they will definitely push Indonesia to the forefront of science and technology.” (The Jakarta Post)