Duncan Watts – 1987 IPhO

  • Duncan Watts – 1987 IPhO image

Dr Duncan Watts grew up near Toowoomba but lived in Scotland until he was five, where he used to visit his dad’s agronomy lab at the University of Aberdeen.

I recall it being filled with oscilloscopes and other electronic equipment littering the lab benches,” he says. “Even back then I decided I wanted to be a scientist.”

Before his final year of high school, he went to a science summer camp in Canberra. There, he was invited to be on the Australian team for the 1987 International Physics Olympiad in Jena, Germany. “I had never heard of it, but I thought I was OK at physics and it sounded fun, so I said yes,” he says.

He has many great memories from his time at the Olympiads, including the training camp in Munich, visiting East Germany before the end of the Cold War, and meeting students from all around the world. “We were a bit of a hodgepodge of a team, and we weren’t very good, but we had a great time and we felt incredible fortunate to be a part of it,” he says. 

After school, Duncan joined the navy, and completed a Science honours degree in physics at ADFA and a PhD at Cornell University in the US. In his final year of his PhD, he had to write his entire thesis in three months. 

“There were innumerable setbacks and moments of near panic, but I got it done with less than 24 hours to spare,” he says. “24 years later, I’ve written many papers and articles and two other books … but I’ve never been as focused or productive as I was that summer.”

Today, he is a professor of computer science, communications, and business at the University of Pennsylvania. “In my research I use methods from network science and computational social science to try to understand the collective dynamics of human and social systems,” he says. “I’m also fascinated by how science is done in practice, as opposed to in theory, and how to improve it.”

Duncan has made many career changes: from naval officer to academic, from engineer to sociologist, and from industry researcher to university professor. “I’ve always been looking for the place where I can have the most fulfilling experience and do the most interesting work,” he says. 

He suggests any student considering a career in STEM should decide what they care most about and figure out what they are good at that other people find difficult. 

Outside of work, Duncan spends most his spare time with his two young boys.