A Charmed Life
In the fall of 1960 Sau Lan Yu Wu ’63 stepped off a boat in San Francisco after a 20-day journey with only $40 to her name. She was greeted by a pack of ladies bearing, among other things, a homemade cake. Those ladies were Vassar alumnae, and that day was Sau Lan’s first of many happy Vassar experiences.
As a student in her home city of Hong Kong, she furtively searched through books detailing American colleges at the local consulate. Until then, she had never heard of Vassar, but her interest was sparked by what she read. Although her father was not able to pay for her college education, Sau Lan applied anyway and received a full scholarship. When she submitted paperwork for her student visa, the clerk told her, “You must have been a very good student to get into Vassar.” On her journey to America, she discussed her college plans with strangers, to practice speaking English. “The Americans I talked to all expressed surprise and admiration that I was going to Vassar,” she remembered.
Sau Lan as a student sitting in front of Chicago Hall
Sau Lan was overwhelmed by the glamorous lifestyle of Vassar students. The day she arrived in New York, alumnae whisked her away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “This great historical monument fascinated me, even after my long journey. I distinctly remember Mrs. Washburn, a Vassar alumna who invited me to her beautiful home in an exclusive area of Manhattan,” she recalled. During her freshman year, she was also invited to the White House for Easter to meet Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy ’51. Sau Lan remembered, “I wore a Chinese dress, and my friends were uneasy about the high slit on the side and kept reminding me to conceal it. We met many wives of congressmen and senators, and I assumed at the time that this was intended as an inspiration for our future paths.”
Her adjustment to the United States was a difficult one. Sau Lan was unable to see her family for nine long years. Sometimes, American culture was unsettling, she said. “I visited the Supreme Court building with two other Chinese girls, and we looked for a restroom. We were confronted with the decision of whether to enter the door marked ‘White’ or ‘Black.’ That was my first experience with racial discrimination.”
Despite her difficulties, Sau Lan speaks highly of Vassar’s generosity, from the dean who allowed her to charge all her books to the college store to the students who gave her clothes to wear. And, she added, “Professor [of physiology] Ruth Conklin created a job for me so I could earn some money. I ironed her suits and burned a big hole in one, but she insisted on paying me anyway.” Because Sau Lan never had to worry about her financial solvency on campus, she could focus completely on her studies, cloistering herself away in the library’s basement for hours on end. She reminisced, “I was thrilled with how well Vassar treated me. All of the support — emotional and financial — provided me with great inspiration to be a successful scholar.”
And a successful scholar she was, overcoming a daunting language barrier. She trudged through The Scarlet Letter by “continuously referring to the dictionary. I started the course in September and did not finish reading the book until Christmas. It made such a strong impression on me that even to this day I still think about the tragic story.” Sau Lan also remembers her art class, where she painted with watercolors and Chinese ink on rice paper. “I did not have money to buy a frame,” she recalled, “but Professor [of physics] Monica Healea bought a beautiful one and hung the painting in her home.”
Professor Wu at work in the laboratory
Sau Lan wanted to be an artist until she read Marie Curie’s biography and decided to devote her life to science. During her stay at Vassar, she worked as a summer student at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island where she became captivated by the study of particle physics. After receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard, she worked as a research associate at M.I.T. There she aided other scientists in making what Newsweek called “the most important advance in physics in 20 years”: the discovery of a new particle, the charmed quark, in 1974. Soon after Sau Lan joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, she immediately worked to unearth gluon, the glue that holds particles together. For this discovery, she received the 1995 High Energy and Particle Physics Prize of the European Physical Society. In 1996, she was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Sau Lan is now the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics with the University of Wisconsin, Madison and lives in Geneva, Switzerland. She conducts her research at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Looking back on her days at Vassar, Sau Lan is understandably sentimental. “It was a beautiful campus,” she said. “To me it was a dreamland.”
Photo credits: Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries; Sau Lan Yu Wu