After graduating from TJ in 2001 (photo in familiar gown below), Monika Schleier-Smith headed first to Harvard, where in 2005 she graduated with highest honors in Chemistry, Physics, and Math, and next to MIT, where in 2011 she obtained her PhD in Physics as a National Science Foundation and Hertz Fellow. She was then a postdoctoral fellow at the Ludwig Maximilian University/Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Munich, and recently joined the Stanford Physics Department as Assistant Professor, concentrating in the areas of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. In February, she was awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a $50,000 award given to “the most promising scientific researchers working today” whose “achievements and potential place them among the next generation of scientific leaders.”
Newsworthy caught up with Professor Schleier-Smith over the summer.
Q: Could you explain your research to our readership of parents and alumni?
A: “My current research uses ultracold atoms — cooled within millionths of a degree of absolute zero — as model systems for investigating quantum mechanics. One application is enhancing the precision of clocks and sensors (accelerometers, magnetometers), ultimately toward fundamental limits set by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle [Nobel Prize-winning physicist Bill Phillips explains in simple terms how laser cooling has contributed to the development of more accurate atomic clocks].
“In the long term, control of many-particle quantum systems could also have a profound impact on computation. Already a collection of 40 well-controlled quantum mechanical particles can in principle store more information than the world’s largest supercomputer. Yet we are still far from having the tools to encode and retrieve that information. The effort to develop such tools presents major experimental and even conceptual challenges, which my research group is striving to address.”
Q: How important was TJ in setting you on the path toward a career in physics research?
A: “Without a doubt, my TJ education provided a crucial foundation for pursuing a career in physics. I had so many excellent teachers at TJ—in math, science, computer science, and also the humanities. In addition to my physics classes with Dr. Dell and Mr. Latham, the 3-year chemistry sequence with Dr. Liebermann had a tremendous influence on me. It was in learning about electrons in atoms and molecules that I first encountered the concept of quantum uncertainty. In light of this uncertainty, each electron in an atom is not localized at a single point but rather ‘smeared out like peanut butter,’ in Dr. Liebermann’s characteristically vivid analogy. Concepts of uncertainty and non-locality in quantum mechanics have continued to fascinate me and motivate my research to this day.”
A: “I have fond memories of progressing from being a purely recreational runner to helping TJ win the state championship. Somewhere along the way, I remember Coach Matt Ryan pulling me aside and saying, ‘Monika, you’ve been training with great athletes and now it’s time for you to race at their level.’
“In physics as well, I’ve had the privilege of ‘training’ with phenomenal peers, colleagues, and mentors at TJ and MITRE [where Monika spent three summers in the Nanosystems Group], Harvard, MIT, the LMU Munich/Max Planck Institute, and now at Stanford. I am very excited to be in a position to start passing what I’ve learned along to my own students as we build up our new research lab.”