Double degree: Shanghai twins both headed for MIT to study theoretical physics

Brothers who have studied together from a young age get coveted places with full scholarships at the prestigious university

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 10:32pm

Twin brothers from Shanghai have been accepted into the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with full scholarships to pursue doctoral degrees in theoretical physics.

Dong Zhihuan and Dong Zhiyu, 22, have studied in tandem from a young age, correcting each other’s homework from side-by-side desks, forging a love of physics by joining summer competitions together, and most recently completing undergraduate degrees in the subject at Fudan University.

Now they have won two of some 45 places that MIT’s department of physics offers to doctoral candidates each year.

“They applied to about eight to 10 universities, and they both got the same offer from four or five of those universities,” their father Dong Wenbo said, adding that other colleges offered a place to one brother but not the other. “Happily, they made the same choice.”

Despite sharing similar academic interests, the twins did not let competition get in the way of their relationship when they were growing up.

“It was a question in their undergraduate studies – for example, if there is an award, only one can get the first prize and the other cannot,” said Dong Wenbo, a professor in the environmental science and engineering department at Fudan University in Shanghai, where his sons studied.

“But they help each other. It’s a good opportunity for them – usually they can discuss with each other and learn from each other.”

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While he chose environmental chemistry for his career, Dong Wenbo said he had a hands-off philosophy when it came to his sons choosing their own paths in science.

“I don’t bother them about their choice of subject. This should depend on their own interests,” he said.

The Shanghai twins are not the only ones headed to MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, this autumn – twin brothers from New Jersey will also be starting undergraduate degrees there.

Dong Zhihuan and Dong Zhiyu will join an MIT student body that includes more than 700 students from mainland China. Nearly 1.5 million Chinese are pursuing degrees outside China, according to official data.

Why do so many Chinese study abroad, when local universities are already among the world’s best?

But these numbers could decline in the United States as Chinese students in selected STEM fields like robotics and aviation face new limitations on their visas, part of a government bid to protect national security introduced this year.

Chinese students and academics across science and technology fields have already reported increased scrutiny of their visa applications.

As for what the future holds after his sons finish their studies, Dong Wenbo said it was up to them to decide, “but I think they would like to go back to China”.