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Mai Sakuragi in front of a coastal view

Succeeding in physics with determination and focus after a nontraditional start

By Srila Nayak

If there is one thing that Mai Sakuragi has learned during her time at Oregon State University, it is that, with passion and hard work, even seemingly impossible goals can be achieved.

Raised in Tokyo, Japan, Mai arrived in Corvallis in 2015 to study fisheries and wildlife science. Now a senior in physics, Mai has an unlikely story of academic transformation. Mai did not study physics or mathematics in high school in Japan, and her path as a physics major was an obstacle-ridden one. But it has ultimately also turned out to be a story of determination, perseverance and success as she heads to a Ph.D. program in quantum computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Mai went to a high school specializing in English language education in Kyoto where she learned about the U.S. education system. Attracted by the academic openness and flexibility in American universities, she decided to apply to OSU. Mai says she chose OSU for its strengths in research and programming. She spent her first year of high school in Alberta, Canada, through a study abroad program that was a life-changing experience.

“I grew as a person and I learned so many valuable life lessons,” she said.

Mai's parents, who are engineers and spent their careers working in companies like SONY, Canon and Huawei and the Kyoto University in Japan, supported their only child's decision to study abroad in Canada and America.

"My mom was really passionate about my education. I appreciate my parents for supporting me throughout my five years at OSU," she said.

"Whenever I get a bad grade it just gives me the motivation to study harder.”

Mai changed majors once she realized that she did not quite enjoy the biology component in fisheries and wildlife science. “I asked myself, ‘What can I enjoy studying?” The first thing that came to my mind was physics.” A lover of nature and a budding environmentalist, Mai thought it would be interesting to really understand how nature functions at a fundamental level and learning physics could help her with that.

“Switching to an entirely new field and major was a big deal for me because I did not focus on math and science in high school and lacked basics in those two fields. The first physics class that I had ever taken was Physics 211 (General Physics with Calculus) at OSU and I got a C in it,” said Mai.

Mai took her first physics class trying to figure out if it was something she could stay with for the long term. She was not discouraged by the low grade and forged ahead with her plan to major in physics. “I wanted to succeed. I just thought I needed to do better. Whenever I get a bad grade it just gives me the motivation to study harder,” Mai explained.

One of her required mathematics courses, Linear Algebra, didn’t go too well either, but again that didn’t stop a determined Mai from adding a minor in mathematics.

Mai attributes her eventual progress in physics and capping her undergraduate career with a strong GPA to sheer hard work, with countless hours devoted to homework and reading textbooks. She also sought help from her professors as well as peers and graduate students at the Worm Hole, the physics tutoring center, for her introductory physics courses. Recently, Mai completed her senior physics thesis, receiving an honorable mention for the Writing In the Curriculum award, that evolved from a computational physics research project involving nanoscale semiconductors, undertaken in the lab of physics professor Yun-Shik Lee.

“I really enjoy mathematical methods and derivations as they relate to physics. The good thing about physics is that it is a bridge between engineering and math,” said Mai, whose favorite courses were junior and senior-level quantum mechanics.

Initially, Mai did not plan on doing a Ph.D. abroad and wanted to return to Japan to pursue a master’s degree. But during an internship at IBM Research in Tokyo last summer, she was urged by a mentor to apply to Ph.D. programs in quantum computing at Western universities. At IBM, Sakuragi worked for three months on the usability of OpenPulse, an open source software under development at IBM, identifying technical problems within the software.

She further honed her interest in experimental quantum computing while working in Lee’s lab and a lot of independent study, something that she has become quite adept at as a highly motivated student.

While studying has kept her very busy in the last few years, Mai said she enjoys listening to music and traveling and looks forward to her life as a graduate student and researcher in the near future.