| by Laura Meader

Huan Bui ’21 will have the honor of leading the Class of 2021 in its commencement procession this Sunday, May 23, as class marshal, the student with the highest grade point average. Bui, hailing from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, is a physics and mathematics major with a minor in statistics.

“He’s the most talented, hard-working, and ambitious student I’ve worked with my 30 years at Colby,” said the William A. Rogers Professor of Physics Charles Conover, Bui’s thesis advisor. “He is a once-in-a-lifetime student.”

This summer, the Phi Beta Kappa scholar is headed to MIT for a Ph.D. program in experimental atomic physics, continuing the research he conducted with Conover on ultracold atoms.

“I’m very proud that the hard work paid off,” said Bui on the cusp of graduation. “I achieved my goal of getting into a Ph.D. program, so this is icing on the cake.”

Class Marshal Huan Bui ’21 will study experimental atomic physics in a Ph.D. program at MIT starting this summer. (Photo by Gabe Souza)


According to Conover, Bui was accepted into several prestigious graduate programs, including Princeton, the University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Penn State, and Stanford, which receives more than 800 applications for about 20 spots.

Bui started working in Conover’s lab at the end of his first semester. “By mid-March,” Conover said, “he was doing things that my seniors had trouble with or simply couldn’t do; he’s strong in both theory and experiment.” Bui has worked in Conover’s lab ever since, excelling in the field of atomic molecular and optical physics. Bui’s physics honors thesis focused on ultracold atoms, which are trapped with lasers and magnetic fields. Ultracold atoms hover at temperatures near absolute zero, a million times colder than interstellar space.

Studying physics in college was a given for Bui when he arrived on Mayflower Hill from the CATS Academy Boston. However, he didn’t expect to major in mathematics—“I thought pure mathematics were too much for me”—but after taking math classes to help with his physics work, he discovered he had an aptitude for the work. He also found the Math Department’s faculty “really amazing.”

Bui’s second honors thesis was in the subject of Fourier analysis, which he worked on with his advisor Assistant Professor of Mathematics Evan Randles. Based on Bui’s thesis, he and Randles coauthored an article recently submitted to the leading journal in Fourier analysis, the Journal of Fourier Analysis and Applications.

In addition to his Colby research, Bui spent a summer and a month in January at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland. And last summer, he did a virtual research experience in quantum information science at the Perimeter Institute at Waterloo, Ontario.

What’s his secret sauce?

Ultimate Frisbee, Bui said with a smile. “It’s a really great community and a great outlet, a real release from your studies.” He practiced with the team five days a week early in his time at Colby, but by his junior year, he missed practices because of his studies and the pandemic. He felt the loss. “It became very clear to me that Frisbee was an important part of my years at Colby.”

It’s more than the game, he said. It’s about finding balance in life. “If I had to turn back time, I would tell myself not to worry too much.”