Once a physicist: Ted Hsu
Ted Hsu is the member of parliament for Kingston and the Islands, Canada
Why did you decide to study physics
When I was young I loved astronomy – both reading books about it and looking at the sky. A little later I learned to enjoy mathematics. Physics was the subject that most interested me as an undergraduate. I loved how physics could describe so many things in the natural world. After working in laboratories in the summer, continuing on with physics in graduate school seemed very natural.
What did you enjoy most about working in research
Being near the forefront of physics research, feeling like I was in the thick of things, reading the latest preprints, trying to contribute something myself, being around the giants in the field, enjoying the company of my fellow physicists.
Why did you decide to switch careers and work in investment banking
In the early 1990s permanent jobs in academia were hard to come by. Some physics friends had already made the leap into the financial world and, not wanting to take on another postdoctoral position, I also decided to make the leap and apply for a job there. I replied to an advertisement in the New York Times, had an interview, and was offered a position modelling interest rates at a small US company called Cooper Neff, which was in the process of being folded into the large French bank, Banque Nationale de Paris.
You also worked in green energy. What sparked your interest in that area
My wife showed me an article about greenhouse-gas offsets that had a connection to the financial markets – namely, the pricing and trading of emissions credits as a way to efficiently manage reductions in greenhouse gases. Deeper research into the subject of climate change led me to realize that this was an extremely important long-term problem for civilization. Work in green energy was a way to get involved in this area, as a non-specialist with a science and business background.
Why did you decide to go into politics
Taking care of my young daughter led me to think about public policy and the longer-term problems that government should but would not or could not take care of. At about this time, in 2006, the Liberal Party of Canada had a leadership contest. It was a wide-open race with many ways to contribute. I took the opportunity to support a candidate who shared my beliefs, and that was the start of my involvement in partisan politics as a volunteer. When the local member of parliament retired in 2010, I decided that I could make a difference by being a different and better kind of politician, with an uncommon background, and so I sought to be the nominated candidate for the Liberal Party in my home riding of Kingston and the Islands.
How – if at all – does your training in physics help you in your current career
I don't mind staring at numbers, manipulating them, graphing them in the different ways to try to pull information out of them. Most politicians never do that. I think I've been able to make a contribution in that way. Also, the belief that nothing could be more difficult than the things that stumped you as a physicist gives you a certain confidence, which can be useful as a politician – even if that belief is misplaced!
I understand how research is done and what effect cuts to different aspects of research funding will have. I've been through arguments about curiosity-driven research versus commercially-driven research. My contacts in the physics world, and other people who respect me based on my scientific credentials, have been very helpful in giving me information about what is going on in laboratories across the country in reaction to changes in government policy. And sometimes the subject of the day is related to science, which means they call on me to do the interviews or make the speeches. Those are some of the most enjoyable days to work.
Physics did not, however, help me with managing teams of people. It also did not help me with time management, since becoming a politician meant putting less emphasis on quality management, and more emphasis on time management.
Do you have any advice for today's physics students
Don't be afraid to try out unexpected career paths. Keep learning. Get ready to adapt to very different "cultures" in different fields of work. Keep in touch with your physics friends. Know that there are very smart people in every field, often where you don't expect it. Be able to explain to your neighbour what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you work in a business, understand that business – don't just do your work. Consider getting involved in an election campaign, if only to get a better understanding of how democracy works and to be better advocates for the things you care about.
This article appeared in the January 2013 issue of Physics World.