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Physics

Fei-Fei Li ’99

Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University

I entered Princeton in 1995, knowing two things about myself: I liked science and math, and I wanted the maximum challenge during my college years. I still recall the first class of Physics 103/105 (the two were combined for a portion of the semester) where nearly 200 ambitious freshmen poured in. The professor told us that very soon only one-tenth of us would remain in the major. And he was right. Physics 105 was by far the hardest class I had ever taken at that point in my life. But I soon discovered that taking the toughest physics, chemistry, and math classes satisfied exactly what I wanted—the quenching of my thirst for learning science, and the maximum challenge I was looking for—even more than I imagined.

I knew all along that I was not going to be a physicist. My intellectual love was to understand intelligence, both biological and artificial. But physics was the discipline that exemplified the beauty and brilliance of scientific discovery and intellectual creativity. 

Multidisciplinary discoveries

As a professor now doing research in artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience, my home department is in computer science, but I hold a courtesy appointment also in engineering, often teach in psychology, have collaborations with statisticians, talk about ideas with medical school colleagues, and supervise students from computer science to electrical engineering, math, biology, and even philosophy. I could not have imagined this career path without my Princeton education. 

Certainly I did not learn everything I know today in my undergraduate studies, but I learned one key idea: Cutting-edge scientific discoveries often happen at the intersection of multiple disciplines. I learned this through two certificate programs I took at Princeton: engineering physics, and applied and computational mathematics. These well-designed yet highly flexible programs allowed me to expand beyond the core physics courses and exposed me not only to a different set of classes but, more importantly, to seminar series and professors who were so enthusiastic in telling us about their research.

While the problem sets, junior papers, and senior thesis kept me extremely busy as a physics major, I had unlimited resources and support. I took several classes in East Asian studies, economics, and anthropology. I had frequent discussions and debates with other undergraduates, graduate students, and professors in the dining halls and at social events. And with the support of multiple programs, departments, and offices, including the president’s office and the International Center (now the Davis International Center), I was even able to organize a history conference commemorating a World War II atrocity, an event that drew together hundreds of international scholars and attendees. It was here at Princeton that the door to world-class intellectualism was opened for me. 

Li-Fei-Fei