Fueled by Problem-Solving

“Every time I try to solve a problem—whether it be physics or computer science—I always try to find an elegant solution,” says MIT senior Thomas Bergamaschi, who spent four years learning how to solve problems while an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) student in the Engineering Quantum Systems (EQUS) laboratory at MIT.

“Of course,” he adds, “there are many times where a problem doesn’t have an elegant solution, or finding an elegant solution is much harder than a normal solution, but it is something I always try to do, as it helps me understand at most something. Another compelling reason is that these solutions are usually the simplest to teach other people, which is always appealing to me.”

"I think there are many instances during my time at MIT in which I worked all night for a project, just to get up and hop back on because of the excitement of obtaining a result or solution,” says senior Thomas Bergamaschi.

Now, as the physics and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) major ponders post-graduation life, he believes he’s ready to tackle challenges in his career as a software engineer at Five Rings, where he had an internship. “There are a lot of hard and interesting problems to be solved there. Challenges are something that fuels me.”

STEM family

Born in Brazil, Bergamaschi lived in the United States until he was six, when his family moved back to Vinhedo, a small town in rural Sao Paulo. His Brazilian father is a software engineer, and his mother, who is from England, studied biology in college and now teaches English. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Thiago, who was the first in the family to be drawn to physics. When his brother entered physics competitions in high school, Thomas did too.

He had high school teachers who encouraged him to study physics beyond the usual curriculum. “One teacher accompanied me on many bus and plane rides to physics competitions and classes,” he recalls. “She was a huge motivator for me to continue studying physics and helped find me new books and problems throughout high school.”

The younger Bergamaschi went on to win silver medals at the International Physics Olympiad and at the International Young Physicists’ Tournament, and more than a dozen other medals in national and regional Brazilian science competitions in physics, math, and astronomy.

MIT time

Thiago Bergamaschi ’21 joined MIT as a physics and EECS major in 2017, and his brother wasn’t far behind him, entering MIT in 2019.

Bergamaschi ended up spending nearly all four years at MIT as a UROP student in the EQUS laboratory, under the supervision of PhD student Tim Menke and Professor William Oliver. That’s when he was introduced to quantum computing; his supervisors were constructing a device that had a phenomenon where many qubits could interact simultaneously.

“This type of interaction is very useful for quantum computers, as it gives us a possible way that we can map problems we are interested in onto a quantum computer,” he says. “My project was to try to answer the question of how we can actually measure things, and prove that the constructed device actually had this coupling term we were interested in.”

He proposed and analyzed methods to experimentally detect many-body quantum systems. “These systems are extremely important and interesting as they have many cool applications, and in particular can be used to map computationally hard problems—such as route optimization, Boolean satisfiability, and more—to quantum computers in an easy way.”

This project was supposed to be a warm-up project for his UROP. “However, we soon noticed that the problem of accurately measuring these effects was a pretty tricky problem. I ended up working on this problem for around six months—my summer, the fall semester, and the beginning of IAP [Independent Activities Period]—trying to figure out how we can measure these effects.”

He presented his research at the 2021 and 2022 American Physical Society March meetings, and published “Distinguishing multi-spin interactions from lower-order effects” in Physical Review Applied.

“The experience of presenting my work in a conference and publishing a paper is a huge highlight from my time at MIT and gave me a taste of scientific communication and research, which was invaluable for me,” Bergamaschi says. “Being able to do research with the help of Tim Menke and Professor Oliver was inspiring, and is one of the largest highlights from my time at MIT.”

He also worked with William Isaac Jay, a postdoc at the MIT Center for Theoretical Physics, on lattice quantum field theory. He studies quantum theories at the microscopic level, where strong nuclear interactions are relevant. “This is particularly appealing as we can simulate these theories on a computer, albeit usually a huge supercomputer, and try to make predictions about phenomena involving atoms at a minuscule scale. I UROP’d in this lab over both my junior and senior year, and my project involved implementing techniques from one of these computer simulations, how can we go back to the real world and obtain something that an experiment would measure.”

Brazil blues

Bergamaschi missed Brazil but found community playing soccer with intramural teams Ousadia and Alegria Futebol Clube, and eating churrasco with his friends at Oliveira’s Brazilian-style steakhouse in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also loved going to college with his brother, who graduated in 2021 and is now pursuing his PhD in physics at the University of California at Berkeley.

“One of my favorite memories of MIT is from my sophomore spring, when I managed to take two classes with him just before he graduated,” he recalls. “It was a lot of fun discussing physics problem sets and projects with him.”

What also keeps him in touch with his homeland is working with Brazilian high school students competing in physics tournaments. He is part of an academic committee that creates and grades the physics problems taken by the top 100 Brazilian high school students. Those with top scores go on to the International Physics Olympiad. He says he sees this as a way to pay forward what his high school teacher did for him: to encourage others to study physics.

“These olympiads were one of the main reasons for my interest in physics and me coming to MIT, and I hope that other Brazilian students can have these same opportunities as I had,” he says. “These students are all incredibly talented. A large amount of them end up coming to MIT after they graduate high school, so it’s a very gratifying and incredible experience for me to be able to participate and help in their physics education.”

Post-graduation thoughts

What will he miss most at MIT? “Late-night problem set sessions immediately before a deadline, trying to find a free food event across campus, and getting banana lounge bananas and coffee.”

What were his biggest lessons? He says that MIT taught him how to work with other people, “handle imposter syndrome,” and most importantly, unravel complicated challenges.

“I think one of my major motivators is my desire to learn new things, whether it be physics or computer science. So, I am a big fan of very difficult problems or projects which require continual work but have large payoffs at the end. I think there are many instances during my time at MIT in which I worked all night for a project, just to get up and hop back on because of the excitement of obtaining a result or solution.”

This story was originally written by Sandi Miller and published in MIT News on May 30, 2023. Photo courtesy of Sandi Miller.

Share this story