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Physics' Sarah Spielman Awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

April 26, 2023
Sarah Spielman in the lab.

Sarah Spielman, a Ph.D. student studying physics in the lab of Professor Michael Noel has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

The fellowship program is the country’s oldest fellowship program that directly supports graduate students in various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Since 1952, NSF has funded over 60,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. Currently, 42 Fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Spielman found out about Bryn Mawr’s graduate programs from Melanie Lott, a professor at Denison who earned her Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr in 2012 and from an advisor at Denison who was familiar with Noel’s research.

Her research focuses on studying energy exchange in quantum systems of highly excited, ultracold atoms.

“I’m looking at how atoms interact with each other, how they talk to each other, and how they evolve over time in a quantum system,” she explains.

Spielman does her research both experimentally and in simulation (on a computer). The experiments take place at an optical table in a lab on which dozens of mirrors and lenses are arranged at various angles to create a dizzying maze for a laser to travel before it reaches an atom trap.

“The way that everything is set up on here must be in a very specific configuration so we can get the lasers to do what we want. Right now, I’m working on getting the atoms to trap using a technique called laser cooling. Once that’s possible, we can set up other lasers, which we can then use to excite the atoms, so they interact and talk to each other.”

If everything is set up correctly, Spielman will create the right conditions to study the mechanisms behind a unique quantum behavior called many-body localization at the atomic level.

By way of explanation, Spielman uses an example of a hot cup of coffee put in a freezer.

“Imagine you brew a hot cup of coffee this morning, and you put it in your freezer. If you check on it the next day, you expect to find that your coffee has frozen. That’s called thermalization. That’s what we’re used to seeing,” she explains. “But on the quantum level, something strange called localization can happen. You can come back the next day, open the freezer, and find your coffee cup just as hot as it was before.”

The potential impact of the findings from Spielman’s research is broad but of particular interest to those working on building quantum computers.

Spielman explains that these localized systems of atoms can be used as a sort of “quantum memory,” much like a memory chip on a computer.

“Quantum computers are still in their infancy, but these computers would be thousands of times more powerful than what we have today.”

In addition to working with Noel, Spielman also collaborates with Professor of Physics Thomas Carroll of Ursinus College, who was Noel’s very first Ph.D. student.

“Between the two of them I get non-stop advising. It’s really kind of a unique situation to be able to get this much attention as a Ph.D. candidate and I’m really thankful to be a part of the Bryn Mawr community.”