Alicia Kollár Bridges Abstract Math with Realities of the Lab

Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize-winning mathematical physicist, once said, “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Indeed, mathematics may seem abstract or even irrelevant until it’s used to describe the natural world around us. The reverse is occasionally also true: Physical realities, when brought to a mathematician’s attention, can inspire new questions and new discoveries. 

The research of Alicia Kollár, a Chesapeake Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland and a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute, embodies the give and take of this relationship between physics and mathematics. In her lab, she brings abstract theories to life and in turn collaborates on new theorems. She has forged a research program of manipulating light on a chip, coaxing the light into behaving as though it lives on the surface of a sphere, or a mathematical abstraction known as a hyperbolic surface. She also collaborates with mathematicians, furthering both the understanding of what these chips can do and their underlying mathematics. 

Alicia KollárAlicia KollárA direct collaboration with pure mathematicians is uncommon for a physicist, particularly an experimentalist. But Kollár is no stranger to mathematics. Raised by two mathematicians in Princeton, New Jersey, she was exposed to the discipline early on. However, Kollár said her parents didn’t pressure her to pursue mathematics growing up. 

“It never crossed my dad’s mind to try to force me to do what he loved,” Kollár said. “He considered that pointless, like ‘You should go into research for you, not for somebody else’s expectations.’” 

Her father, János Kollár, a professor of mathematics at Princeton, had a slightly different take. 

“She was always interested in science, so I didn’t need to apply any influence,” he said. “If she was only interested in rock music it might have been different.”

Free to pursue whatever she pleased (short of rock music), Kollár studied advanced math, but without much enthusiasm. 

“I was fortunate to be able to take quite a bit of college-level pure math as a high schooler,” she said. “And I would say that I think I was good at it, but I didn’t love it. I just kind of didn’t care.” 

What really caught Kollár’s attention was physics. Her high school physics teacher’s style really resonated with her. 

“He was a crusty old dude that loved Far Side cartoons,” she recalled. “And he wouldn’t put up with anybody that was too cool for school. He taught non-calculus physics, but he taught that you have to think about it—not ‘Here’s a method learn how to do it.’ We became really good friends, and I really liked thinking about how it works, you know, the physical intuition part of physics.”

She attended college at Princeton University, remaining in her hometown and further developing her fascination with physics. 

“I was sort of divided between math and physics as a freshman,” Kollár said. “But the more physics I took, I never looked back.”

During her first summer research experience, she was charged with taking apart a telescope mount for a cosmology group. That’s when she found her calling as an experimentalist.  

“I had a lot of fun that summer,” she said, smiling. “I ended up building a 1500-pound steel support structure. I was up to my eyeballs in machine oil and loving every minute of it.”

When applying to graduate schools, Kollár’s soon-to-be Ph.D. adviser Benjamin Lev, now an associate professor of physics and applied physics at Standford University, called her and convinced her to join his lab. He enticed her with the promise that, as an atomic and optical physicist, she could do both theory and experiment side by side. She joined his group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and, in her first year, moved with the whole team to Stanford.

Kollár’s Ph.D. work consisted of building a novel experimental apparatus from scratch, designed to trap atoms and photons together and allow them to influence each other in significant, controllable ways. The resulting experimental setup launched a new direction in its field, according to Lev. 

“From beginning to end, it was just an amazing graduate school experience, where you see something from the inception of the idea to actually showing that this new experimental technique can work,” Lev said. “And she was always a thought partner. We were thinking through the ideas, writing the equations on the board, working with theorists, and she was an equal thought partner on all of that.”

After graduate school, Kollár found herself returning to Princeton. “Princeton is a black hole,” she said. “You can never quite leave. Maybe it’s the Hotel California, you know?”

She became a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Andrew Houck, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a Fellow in the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science. Houck worked with coplanar waveguides—little paths printed on a circuit board that confine light in a tube the thickness of a human hair. These paths have become the setting of many of Kollár’s mathematical explorations. 

Kollár was in her office one day, playing around with one of these coplanar waveguide chips. This one contained a waveguide lattice—a repeating grid, one waveguide after the other. Lattices are a familiar concept to physicists from the study of metals, where atomic nuclei form repeating patterns, extending in all three directions.

Kollar’s mathematical training bubbled up, flooding her brain with ideas. She envisioned a similar lattice, but instead of one dimension it would extend in two. And, she realized, thanks to the properties of coplanar waveguides, there was a lot of flexibility in the ways she could shape these grids.  

Instead of being points, as in a conventional lattice of nuclei in a metal, the sites of this lattice were paths—lines that guide light around. And, Kollár could bend and stretch these lines however she wanted without changing the underlying physics, as long as the total length stayed the same. 

Kollár realized that by scrunching and stretching these waveguides, she could connect them to each other in ways that aren’t possible for normal lattices of points, at least not in the world we are used to. Instead, the waveguides would act as though they are on the surface of a sphere, or a mathematical construction known as a hyperbolic surface, where traditional ideas of parallel lines, triangles and navigation break down.  

A hyperbolic surface is, in a sense, the opposite of a sphere. So much so that a two-dimensional hyperbolic surface can’t exist within our three-dimensional world—basically, it doesn’t fit. Kollár said the best way to imagine hyperbolic space is with some of M. C. Escher’s pictures. 

Kollár and her collaborators successfully showed that coplanar waveguides can indeed form lattices that act as though they live on a hyperbolic surface. 

Kollár found that these hyperbolic lattices had some cool physics properties. In particular, she found that they gave rise to something called flat bands—paradoxical places where, regardless of how fast a particle is moving, its energy stays the same. These flat bands are thought to be behind some of the most intriguing unexplained physical effects, like the fractional quantum Hall effect, spin-​liquids, and even some cases of high-temperature superconductivity. 

“When I discovered these flat bands, I actually thought I made a mistake in my code,” Kollár said, “I turned around to my lab partner, and I was like, ‘I think I messed up but if I didn’t, this is really cool.’ And so at the time, we didn't understand where that was coming from. What we've since come to understand is that was really just the tip of the iceberg.”

To understand the full potential of this new technique, Kollár joined forces with Peter Sarnak, professor of mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. This collaboration has proved extremely fruitful. Together, they showed that the flat bands were far from a mistake. In fact, they proved that the flat bands must exist in any hyperbolic lattice of the kind Kollár creates.

“There's been this constant feedback between very general math theorems leading to good examples and then good examples leading to new math theorems,” Kollár said.

Now, she is leading her own group at UMD and is working on coupling bits of quantum information—called qubits—to these exotic lattices. She has assembled a group of like-minded students, interested in addressing novel physics. Although there’s no way to know exactly what the future holds for Kollár, it’s fair to anticipate that she will continue to follow her nose to interesting and unexpected places. 

“I think what was special about Alicia is that she always had her own mind and she did not want to follow what others were doing,” her father, János, said. “It can be frustrating when you're a two-year-old, but I think in the long run if you can follow your own mind very seriously it can work out very well.”

Written by Dina Genkina

Creating an Inclusive Physics Community

When University of Maryland senior physics majors Ela Rockafellow and Kate Sturge entered the lecture hall of their honors math course freshman year, they quickly realized they were two of three women in a room of about 25 people.

All through high school, Rockafellow noticed how the number of women, gender minorities and students of color diminished in her advanced STEM classes, especially physics and math. When she asked her friends why their passion for science had faded, they told her they didn’t feel smart enough for the coursework—and often mentioned specific experiences or interactions that had discouraged them.

Studies show that since the ’90s, young women and men have earned about the same number of math and science high school credits, with women performing slightly better than men in these classes. But men are more likely to take the advanced placement exams to receive college credit. Seeing this themselves, Rockafellow and Sturge wondered how the dynamic could be changed so young members of underrepresented groups would feel empowered to pursue their goals in STEM.

“I think everyone in physics has felt like they’re not smart enough at one point or another,” said Rockafellow, a 2021 Goldwater Scholar. “But the compounded effect of society’s assumption that certain people aren’t as intelligent as others, especially in STEM spaces, can make it significantly more difficult to stay in the field.” 

Crafting a Curriculum

Rockafellow and Sturge, now co-presidents of the Society of Physics Students (SPS), decided to develop a class that would provide undergraduate students with the tools to counter society's assumptions about students in STEM. The idea for the course had initially been raised by attendees in an SPS town hall meeting in fall 2020. As SPS co-presidents, Rockafellow and Sturge decided to push the concept forward and create the course themselves in close collaboration with the director of education for the Department of Physics, Donna Hammer.

For months, Rockafellow and Sturge brainstormed the right course structure with Hammer, determining the necessary elements to make the course a reality. Together, they landed on a one-credit speaker series seminar to pilot the class, which became PHYS 298D: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Physics. 

“The idea was that from listening to a variety of speakers, students would gain a broader perspective, both validating the experience of minority students and increasing empathy and understanding of what minority members of the physics community go through,” Rockafellow explained. “Once we put together a rough outline for a curriculum, we sent it to everybody we knew who knew had experience in DEI work, and we got tons of feedback on how to make the course most effective.” 

To host this seminar, Rockafellow and Sturge first needed to find speakers. Starting with the American Physical Society’s climate report author list, they emailed hundreds of DEI experts to find the right mix of perspectives.

“We ended up getting a lot of really well-known people in the field to come speak just from asking,” Sturge said.

Speakers they chose ranged from Sandy Springs Friends School Head of School Rodney Glasgow to Harvard University Department of the History of Science Chair Evelynn Hammonds to UMD Counseling Center Research Director Yu-Wei Wang. Rockafellow and Sturge publicized the speaker series to SPS and physics department faculty and staff, expanding the reach of each lecture to the greater UMD physics community.

“The seminar format was a natural fit and an exciting student-driven curriculum endeavor,” Hammer said. “Ela and Kate have excellent leadership skills and true dedication to addressing and solving DEI issues.”

When freshman physics major Alejandro Escoto registered for PHYS 298D, he already had some understanding of the challenges underrepresented minorities have faced in physics. But he didn’t realize just how extensive those challenges were. 

“In this class, we explored in-depth why women and people of color have been excluded in physics, how it continues to happen and what each individual can do on a small scale to change that narrative,” Escoto said. “I left the class with a better understanding of how my own privileges play into my navigating of the field and how the things I say will end up affecting other people.”

Plotting the Future Course

For the course’s final project, students proposed projects to advance DEI efforts in their academic communities. For example, Escoto proposed a follow-up course to PHYS 298D on the history of science, focusing on the achievements of a wide range of scientists rather than just white men. 

“There’s a culture of there being one type of physicist,” Sturge said. “Usually, that physicist is white, male, cisgender, straight. That’s the box that you have to fit in. It’s our responsibility to use our privilege as white women to speak up and work toward a goal of dismantling that ideology in physics.” 

With the successful pilot behind them, Rockafellow and Sturge are looking for ways to grow the size of the course the next time it’s taught and they’re revising the PHYS 298D curriculum to meet the Understanding Plural Societies general education requirements. They also hope to continue their outreach work toward building a more diverse, inclusive physics community as they apply to graduate school.

“When you have a bunch of diverse minds together, science really flourishes,” Sturge said. “That’s why this work is important. We’re all working toward a better physics community.”

 Written by Katie Bemb

Growing into a Physicist at UMD

Physics can sometimes come across as the business of cold, calculating geniuses. But it can often be joyful, fun, competitive, engaging and more. Physicists are normal people and each of them has a unique and evolving relationship with their discipline. 

University of Maryland physics graduate student Michael Winer has had a relationship with physics—and physics at UMD in particular—since he was a kid. He first came to UMD as a high school student pursuing his competitive spirit when physics was a fun challenge. Then over time, physics became something more nuanced for him. Now, he has returned to UMD to pursue physics as a career and is also helping introduce the joys of physics to a new generation of bright young minds.

As a kid growing up in Maryland, Winer didn’t have an innate passion for physics. But he did have mathematical talent and a competitive streak. Before getting into physics, he started participating in math competitions when a family friend roped him into a middle school math competition.Michael Winer. Credit: Jess WinerMichael Winer. Credit: Jess Winer

“It was the best thing I've ever been badgered into,” Winer said. “I really liked it, but unfortunately I was not the best at math. So I had to sort of differentiate myself if you will and become the physics guy.”

Winer’s math skills led him to attend Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has a magnet program that offers accelerated courses in science, mathematics and computer science. There, he got his first taste of physics competitions. 

The tests that make up the U.S. Physics Olympiad were the most challenging Winer had ever taken, but his success on the tests in 10th grade—and then again in 11th grade—brought him to nearby UMD where he met several other promising young physics students from across the country. Each year (excepting virtual camps due to COVID-19) UMD hosts students at a training camp where they study physics and have a chance to make the U.S. International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) team.

“In 10th grade, I was really just happy to be there, and it was probably one of the best weeks of my life,” Winer said. “I was just enjoying basking in the glow of all these brilliant people and having all these interesting discussions and learning all these things. And then in 11th grade, I was much more focused on being one of the brightest kids there, making International Physics Olympiad, and then trying to get a gold medal at the International Physics Olympiad.”

In 10th grade, he also took the online course Exploring Quantum Physics with Victor Galitski, a Chesapeake Chair Professor of Theoretical Physics in the Department of Physics at UMD and a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute. Thanks to his positive experience with those two opportunities, Winer ended up reaching out to Galitski and arranging to work on a research project under his mentorship.

He studied how phonons—the quantum particle of sound—interact with electrons, a topic that is essential to understanding what makes superconductors work. That research experience was a radically new experience for Winer. 

He said that he likes to warn young people that research is a completely different beast from what they might be used to from homework or student competitions. 

“There are all sorts of differences,” Winer said. “Maybe you'll be able to solve this in two hours, maybe this will take 200 years, no one knows. And that's a lot of ambiguity, you don't know what you need to know, and you are not just allowed to—but almost always sort of required to—change the question as you're going. It's a completely different experience.” 

That early experience provided inspiration, and by working alongside graduate students, he got a glimpse into the future he is now living.

“By far the most valuable thing was not actually the research but sitting in a room full of grad students,” Winer said. “Sitting in a room with grad students, I think, gives you an insight into academia that just doing physics doesn't. I think you would expect it to sort of destroy the romanticized version I had in my head, but it did not. In fact, to this day, watching other people do physics is very motivating to me and reminds me how much I love doing physics.”

After this first experience with physics research, his passion for physics started yielding tangible rewards. In his sophomore year, he earned a silver medal at IPhO. And then after another summer working with Galitski, he won a first-place medal and $150,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search as a high school senior. 

“Both of those were very, very happy for me,” Winer said. “I did not think I would do well at the Intel contest and was wrong about that. What's interesting is I cared so much about Physics Olympiad. I spent years and years and years dreaming about Physics Olympiad whereas this research prize really just fell in my lap. Like, at no point in my life until it was announced that I had won did I think I would win.” 

After graduating high school and studying physics at MIT, Winer has returned to UMD as a graduate student to tackle much more substantial research. He is working on theories that describe some of the complex physics that play out inside of materials. Working under the mentorship of Galitski and Brian Swingle, an adjunct assistant professor of physics at UMD who is also an assistant professor at Brandeis University, Winer is studying spectral statistics—the distinctive signature that the energy levels of quantum objects collectively imprint on observable properties—in chaotic quantum systems. While it takes much longer to solve the problems he is tackling now, he said he still finds the same joy in learning new physics as he did in his first research experience and studying for the IPhO.

At UMD, Winer has helped mentor two Montgomery Blair students. He said that in addition to helping the students, these experiences have helped him understand his relationship with his own advisors by being on the other side of the table.

He has also given back to the IPhO program by being a coach who both helps write the tests used to select participants and also mentors the selected students. 

Winer said that while his participation as a student in the IPhO was probably helpful in getting to his current position, he thinks that an important part of the event is that it gives kids an opportunity to have fun. 

“Like a sailing club doesn't, you know, justify itself as creating passion for the all-important sailing industry, right?” Winer said. “They just say, ‘The kids are having fun. Let's help some kids have fun.’ And I think we can't forget that. Like, I was a kid, I had a lot of fun. It's good when kids have fun.”

Winer’s advice to any high school students considering studying physics is to try participating in the Physics Olympiad and, if possible, to look for research opportunities with professional physicists.

“You hopefully will discover you like it or at least have the potential to like it,” Winer said. “Then you will grow as a scientist over the course of that and over the course of your college research, and over the course of your grad school research.”

Story by Bailey Bedford

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Jesse Anderson Retires Following 34-Year Career in the Department

As he finished his career in the Army with a posting at the old Walter Reed Hospital in Northwest Washington, Jesse James Anderson decided to enroll at the nearby University of Maryland in College Park in 1983. Ever industrious, he took two jobs: one as a carpenter in residential services, and another at the Stamp Student Union information desk. One day, in a Stamp elevator, a friend dared him to talk to a female student sharing the lift.  “And I did,” says Anderson, recalling the day he met his wife Danna.  “It worked out well for us.”

Danna Anderson studied in College Park for two years before transferring to the University of Maryland, Baltimore, to pursue her degree in medical technology. The couple moved to Charm City, where they have resided ever since. When she completed her practicum at Johns Hopkins University, Danna was immediately offered a staff position, and now supervises the Core Lab at JHU Hospital.

Despite the distance, Jesse Anderson chose to stick with UMD. He spotted and applied for a job in the physics machine shop, and was hired as a storekeeper under manager Frank Desrosier.  “I was studying electrical engineering and learning applied math, which made the shop stuff fun,” he said. “I was very interested in scientific methods and materials, and I learned a lot about metals.”  Over the course of a decade managing the Physics Material Store, he switched his studies to industrial technology, learning machining, drafting and lathe work, all of which he found intriguing and refreshing after his seven years in the Army, which were spent in somewhat monotonous finance and accounting work.Steve Rolston and Jesse Anderson at the 2018 staff awards.Steve Rolston and Jesse Anderson at the 2018 staff awards.

But military service had imparted meticulous record keeping habits that caught the attention of the physics purchasing manager, Camille Vogts. “I think she liked my paperwork,” chuckled Anderson. Vogts was often invited to vendor expos, which she regularly asked Anderson to attend. He recalls these outings as highlights of his UMD years, as they featured up-and-coming, whiz-bang technological developments in machining and laboratory devices. “Those shows were amazing to see,” Anderson recalls.

When an opening arose in the physics receiving office, personnel director Lorraine DeSalvo urged Anderson to apply. “I watched when he first arrived as the storekeeper in the shop,” said DeSalvo. “You just know when you see that sparkle in someone, that willingness and even eagerness to take on some new responsibilities.”

During his stint in receiving, Jesse and Danna enjoyed a four-week vacation, traveling to California to see Jesse’s brother. Upon his return, he found that business director Dean Kitchen had decided to expand his duties. “Dean said, ‘Well, if you’re good with receiving, you can likely handle purchasing, too,’” Anderson recalled.  And after the sudden death of purchasing manager Bob Dahms in 2013, Anderson’s purview expanded further.

From that time until his retirement in December 2021, Anderson faced a relentless workload that included the dizzying logistics of the 2014 move into the Physical Sciences Complex and the resultant need to coordinate purchasing, shipping and receiving for loading docks in separate buildings, ensuring a very busy life. And then, in March 2020, the campus abruptly ceased operations for all save a few staffers. Staying home was not an option for Anderson. During the COVID-19 shutdown, he continued to come to campus daily in support of the department.

“COVID was a lot,” Anderson said. “Managing the loading docks, sending up the mailed paychecks, dealing with the picked-up-in-person paychecks. Just a lot to manage.” Al Godinez, who staffed the Toll Building loading dock for many years, retired in December 2020. “Al urged me to consider retiring, too, but that would have been hard on the department,” Anderson said. And so he persevered for another year, until more normal operations were underway and a replacement could be hired.

For his efforts during the shutdown, Anderson received the first Lorraine DeSalvo Chair's Endowed Award for Outstanding Service, presented virtually by physics chair Steve Rolston in December, 2020.

“Jesse is amazing,” DeSalvo said. “He was always there, and has always gone above and beyond. I was so happy that he received the first DeSalvo Award.”  Anderson is the only physics employee to receive the department’s “outstanding service” staff award three times.

Reflecting upon his career, he reports no regrets, but a sense of appreciation. “It’s something to realize that the people you work with are the tops in their fields. It blows you away what people are doing,” Anderson said. “I enjoyed being familiar with the experiments, seeing the ingenuity involved. When you know the intent, helping with the supplying and the setting up and the installation is a thrill.”

Retirement is still a new sensation. Anderson finds the absence of a morning onslaught of anxious emails odd.  But he savored not having to face an icy I-95 when snow fell this winter. He enjoys seeing more of his daughter Jessica, who will soon finish her graduate degree in clinical psychology and already works as a social worker, doing home visits to assess children and to assist their parents. He is starting to digitize his vinyl record collection, and will soon enjoy a vacation with Danna to New Orleans. Also planned are trips to see family in Georgia, California and New York.Jesse Anderson and student employee Angela Madden at the 2005 staff awards.Jesse Anderson and student employee Angela Madden at the 2005 staff awards.

Throughout his 34 years in the department, Anderson was deeply appreciated for his even keel and reassuring demeanor. “We miss Jesse, because he was always such a tremendous person and colleague,” said Rolston. “I can’t recall ever seeing him frazzled or irritated in the least. But he richly deserves an excellent retirement. He did whatever was needed in the department, from filling dewars on the Toll loading dock to hand-delivering important mail. We can’t thank him enough.”

At a staff luncheon in December, Anderson’s colleagues recognized him with a Department of Physics purchase order for a happy and healthy retirement. Anderson expressed his gratitude and drew a laugh when noting, “I’ve spent more time with you than I have with anyone else in my life.” Anderson affirmed that he truly regards the physics department as family, meaning that at UMD he gained two: One begun in a momentous elevator ride, and one established through 34 years of camaraderie.   

Don’t Be Afraid of the Fog

As a young boy growing up in Iran, Masoud Loghmani (B.S. ’96, physics) loved to spend summer nights under the stars, imagining the possibilities.

“I remember back then there was a lot of buzz about humans landing on the moon and the Apollo flights were all over the news,” Loghmani said. “Every night in the summer we would go out and we would watch the moon and the stars and I would ask my parents, ‘Are the astronauts up there? Are they up there traveling?’ I was maybe four, five years old and it was just amazing for me.”

All these years later, some things haven’t changed.Masoud Loghmani  at Mt. FujiMasoud Loghmani at Mt. Fuji

“Curiosity about how the whole world works has been with me since childhood,” Loghmani explained. “When people ask me to describe myself, I tell them I’m eternally curious.”

Over the last 20-plus years—thanks to boundless curiosity and a unique talent for problem- solving—Loghmani has built a worldwide reputation as a visionary and innovator, developing next-generation tech products through his startups and as a product development leader at Google, YouTube and now TikTok, where he leads brand advertising solutions as director of product management.

And physics lies at the heart of everything he does.

“A lot of people ask me what physics has to do with what I do,” Loghmani explained. “Physics is broadly about learning how to solve problems with a degree of precision necessary for the problem at hand. And when you are solving a technology problem or solving a product problem for your customers, these are things you need to know.”

The complexities of physics captured Loghmani’s interest early on.

“In middle school, I didn’t want to do physics for a while, I wanted to be a surgeon,” Loghmani said. “But then when I was about 11 years old, I read a book I got from my uncle, and I still remember the book was ‘One Two Three . . . Infinity,’” Loghmani said. “It was about all different aspects of physics and the math behind physics and that just got me hooked. That’s when I decided to study physics.”

Loghmani focused on physics and math in high school and then left Iran for the U.S., thanks to a professor he knew at the State University of New York who helped him get a student visa to study physics and electrical engineering there. A self-taught programmer, Loghmani soon found himself balancing his college classes with a programming job at Digital Technics, a tech startup that built switches for telecommunications. 

“When you’re making phone calls, there’s a switch behind the scenes that’s making the connections, giving you all the services, and they were making that switch,” Loghmani said. “I had already been playing a lot with telecommunications switches, trying to figure out how they work, and that helped me secure the job in the company.”

When Digital Technics moved to the D.C. area, Loghmani moved, too. Still working full time, he transferred to the University of Maryland and zeroed in on physics.

“Coming to College Park, I had access to a whole different caliber of classmates and professors,” he recalled. “I was spending a lot of hallway hours with professors after classes and at one point one of them encouraged me to take an independent study course with him. He actually designed a course just for us to spend time on fractals and chaos in nonlinear systems and I really enjoyed that.”

Soon after Loghmani graduated with his B.S. in physics, he launched his first startup, LogicTree, from a Gateway 2000 computer in his bedroom. The company’s first product was a speech recognition system that could access information and share it over the phone. One of the first customers was Metro, the D.C. area’s transportation system. 

“We had built an automated system for them that would talk to callers and give them the information they needed,” Loghmani explained. “Before that, Washington Metro used actual people—an agent would look up your question and say, ‘Oh, you want to go from the National Mall to College Park, here’s which Metro to take, here’s the bus to take,’ and the agent would give you the itinerary over the phone. So we built a system that would give callers all that information automatically.”

In the years that followed, LogicTree sold speech-enabled systems for transit and traffic solutions to transportation agencies all over the country and eventually expanded its speech recognition products into the directory assistance/Yellow Pages technology business, serving customers like AT&T and Verizon. Loghmani had found his calling.

“I realized I enjoyed finding problems, solving them and building companies around them,” he said.

But he also learned there are no guarantees in the world of startups.

“Around 2007, I started a company,, with a new idea to automate event planning, which is a very complex problem. That completely flopped,” Loghmani said. 

By 2010, realizing he wanted to learn more about product development and marketing, Loghmani enrolled in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and earned an MBA in marketing and finance two years later. He then relocated to California’s Silicon Valley where he joined the tech-consulting company Accenture and cofounded a group aimed at identifying promising startups and creating partnerships to support innovation. 

Meanwhile, he was preparing to launch a new product of his own.

“It was basically speech recognition built into a coin-sized wearable device that you could talk to and ask for information and then it would give you information back on a screen nearby,” Loghmani explained. “You could ask questions and it would connect to Google and do the search. The idea was like ‘Star Trek,’ you could tap and talk.”

As Loghmani started fundraising to launch the product, he found out about the work that tech giants were doing in the same space (Google, Amazon, Apple). So, after some exploration he ended up joining Google. Over the next six years, Loghmani developed a variety of next-generation products including a context-driven system that dramatically changed the way YouTube, part of Google, targeted online ads, initiating more choices for advertisers and less privacy intrusion for users. 

“I reinvented how we understand context on YouTube and let advertisers choose where their ad shows, providing advertising revenue that’s not privacy intrusive, it’s contextual,” Loghmani explained. “You see ads based on the content you are watching there, not because of your browsing behavior, and what you have done somewhere else on the web. We started that product literally from zero with one engineer and grew it to hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue in a very short time.”

Starting from zero to create something big is what Loghmani does best.

“I love challenges,” Loghmani said, “and I love to build things from zero to one. You start from scratch and make it happen.”

Even as Loghmani is taking tech innovation to new heights, he still dreams of pursuing a different passion. Someday, he hopes to immerse himself in the study of physics once again.

“I really like what I’m doing and I still read physics books in my spare time, but I would love to go back and study physics, just for the pleasure of understanding how nature works,” he reflected. “It may be a distant dream now, but I would love to do that someday.”

But he’s not likely to have time for that anytime soon. In 2021, Loghmani took on his latest challenge, joining the new video service TikTok, where he leads brand advertising solutions with a team of product managers in China and the U.S. It was a unique, history-making opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“TikTok is like Google 10 years ago,” he said. “It has exploded on the scene and that speed of innovation is exciting. TikTok is demonstrating that innovation in the consumer digital space is not a monopoly of American companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. TikTok demonstrated that a Chinese company can also become globally accepted by consumers and I believe that breaking the barriers makes the world a better place.”

For Loghmani, the magic of innovation and product development in technology never gets old. More than 20 years into a successful career, he’s just getting started—still imagining the possibilities, enjoying the journey and finding inspiration in the challenges along the way. 

“I think there is satisfaction in finding a hard problem that you don’t know the answer to but you know it can be solved and attracting smart people to work with you to find a solution,” Loghmani explained. “It’s like a mountaintop. You see the mountaintop but the rest of it is covered in fog. You don’t know how you’re going to get there, but if you keep climbing, then one day you’re at the top. I like to imagine the big mountaintop and tell people, ‘Don’t be afraid of the fog, we’ll find our way.’”

 Written by Leslie Miller