From Physics to Pharma

Sylvie Ryckebusch (B.S. ’87, physics; B.S. ’87, mathematics) has never underestimated the value—or the challenges—of earning a physics degree.

“I think physics is the hardest subject really,” she explained. “It trains your problem-solving skills, the way you think and learning to work on difficult things. When you’ve spent years studying physics, I think it trains you well for many other lines of work.”Sylvie RyckebuschSylvie Ryckebusch

Ryckebusch applied these skills on a rewarding academic and professional path that took her from the research lab to the business world, and from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. Over the past 20 years, she built an impressive track record leading business development for biotech and pharmaceutical companies, negotiating complex research collaborations and licensing transactions, and specializing in everything from partnerships and corporate strategy to helping bring new therapeutics to market. 

Today, as chief business officer at BioInvent International in Lund, Sweden, Ryckebusch supports the company’s efforts to develop new antibody drugs for the treatment of cancer. And though she didn’t exactly plan it this way, she’s exactly where she wants to be.

“People always ask me, ‘How did you organize your career to end up in business development?’ because that’s a place where a lot of people want to be—in the pharma industry, and most particularly, in business development” she said. “Honestly it was mostly happenstance. One thing led to another and another and I ended up here, although what was important in making these career choices was the self-awareness along the way about what kind of work and environment I enjoyed.”

European roots and a strong work ethic

Growing up in Howard County, Maryland, Ryckebusch always felt a strong connection to her European roots. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from France before she was born. 

“My mother was a secretary at the World Bank and my father was a chef,” she explained. “He grew up during the war in very difficult times in northern France and had to be pulled out of school early to help support the family, so he became an apprentice in a restaurant. When I was growing up, he was working around the Washington area as a chef and had his own restaurant for a time in Ellicott City.”

With many of her relatives still living in France, Ryckebusch decided to spend her high school years there. Fluent in French, she was interested in many subjects, but her teachers pushed her to pursue her strengths in mathematics.

“If you’re good at science, people aren’t going to tell you that you should study English literature,” Ryckebusch said. “I was always good at math and science and in the schools in France, if you’re good in math they tell you that’s what you’ve got to do, they push you.”

Ryckebusch returned to the U.S. after high school and began college at the University of Maryland in 1983, taking on the challenges of a double degree in mathematics and physics. Raised with a strong work ethic, she was driven to keep doing more. 

“I made it really hard for myself,” she admitted. “I skipped the first-year courses, which I probably shouldn’t have done and I did a double-degree program, which would have been a five-year program, but I did it in four years. So, what I remember most from my UMD time is working really hard.”

In those intense academic years, Ryckebusch spent her summers working with a low-temperature physics group at Bell Labs. After graduating from UMD in 1987, she moved on to a Ph.D. program in computation and neural systems at Caltech. 

“My focus was understanding the control of locomotion by the neural system,” she explained. “I was, on the one side, building integrated circuits, transistors and capacitors, the circuits that modeled certain behaviors of neurons in the brain, and in parallel, I was doing actual experiments to identify neuronal circuits involved in locomotor functions.”

After earning her Ph.D. in 1994, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Brandeis University, Ryckebusch was ready for something new. 

“I had to weigh doing academic science for a career or at least the next six or seven years or starting something different, and I thought, I want a change,” she explained. “I like variety and I wanted to be in the real world, though I wasn’t really sure what the real world was.”

Encouraged by a friend, Ryckebusch joined the Harvard Business School as a postdoctoral researcher. There, she investigated business operations, developing case studies on companies all over the world, some of which are still taught at HBS today.

“I went to Japan, to Israel, all over the place, exploring particular issues related to businesses and the organization of their work and writing these up in case studies,” she recalled. “It was different and it was fun, and I fell into it very easily.”

From case studies to consulting

In 1996, Ryckebusch’s academic background, business research at Harvard and fluency in French helped her land a management consulting position at the Paris office of global consultants McKinsey & Company. The experience helped strengthen her skill set in corporate strategy and business development, but after four years, she realized she missed working with scientists and the intricacies of scientific problem-solving.

“I thought this has been fun and I learned so much, but it was very hard work and not really who I was” Ryckebusch explained. “I wanted to get back into a career closer to science.”

Hoping to apply her experience in both science and business, Ryckebusch joined Serono, a large Geneva, Switzerland-based biotech firm. She quickly realized it was the right place at the right time.

“I ended up in the very best possible place for me and I loved it,” she recalled. “You’re negotiating partnerships and alliances—pharma-pharma, pharma-biotech, biotech-academia alliances—and you have to have a good grasp of the science because you’re working on drug development. It was a business role that I’m still doing today over 20 years later.”

Pharmaceutical giant Merck eventually acquired Serono and shut down its Geneva office, but by then Ryckebusch had three kids in school and didn’t want to uproot her family. So, in 2012, she started her own consulting business. Based in Geneva, she worked with pharma and biotech clients, even finding time to teach a graduate-level pharmaceutical business development course at the Grenoble Ecole de Management.  

Then in early 2020, one of Ryckebusch’s clients, BioInvent, suggested that she join them full time as chief business officer.

“BioInvent is a super company, with very high quality science and promising therapeutic drug candidates. I was doing more and more work with them, and they said, ‘Why don’t you join us,’ and it just made sense,” Ryckebusch recalled. “So that’s what I’m doing now.”

Part of a bigger mission

As BioInvent’s chief business officer, Ryckebusch works remotely from her home in Geneva, leading business development efforts, building partnerships and research collaborations for drug development, as well as supporting the investor-backed company with financing and company strategy.

“It costs $800 or $900 million to develop a pharmaceutical product, so biotechs almost never take them to market on their own, you have to partner with a big pharma at some point,” she explained. “There’s a whole strategy around how you partner, when you partner and with whom.”

Ryckebusch takes pride in her role as part of BioInvent’s scientific work in cancer therapeutics. But she’s quick to note that she’s just one small part of a much bigger mission.

“I enjoy that feeling of collectively bringing something forward—we’re all cogs in a wheel,” she explained. “In the pharma industry, it takes 15 to 20 years to develop a drug and a lot of people like me contribute along the way.”

For Ryckebusch, making that kind of contribution means everything.

“It’s all about finding great drugs and developing them and pushing the frontiers of the science,” she reflected. “I really hope one of BioInvent’s products makes it to the market. I would be proud to be able to say a little bit of that came from me.”

When Higgs Fly

When Christopher Palmer was a physics graduate student at UC San Diego, he had to decide whether to specialize in supersymmetry or search for the Higgs boson.

Though there was no experimental evidence of the Higgs boson’s existence at the time, Palmer was convinced that this elusive elementary particle—believed to be linked to a field that gave mass to everything in the universe—was somewhere out there.Chris PalmerChris Palmer

“The Higgs boson is such a cornerstone of a very well-established theory called electroweak theory,” Palmer said. “It could be a lack of imagination on my part, but I could not imagine the Higgs boson not existing.”

He trusted his gut and dedicated his studies to the Higgs, which set him on course to Switzerland to join one of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) beginning in 2010. Luck was on his side, and he ended up being part of the research group that recorded the highest number of Higgs bosons in their analyses, contributing to the particle’s official discovery the following year.

He hasn’t looked back since. In March 2021, Palmer became an assistant professor of physics at the University of Maryland, where he continues to study the Higgs in search of the next big discovery.

‘Deeply weird’ physics

Palmer’s first academic love wasn’t actually physics—it was math.

“I loved math in high school, so I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll do math in college,’ but that was sort of my ‘hobby major’—and I’m glad it was because I ended up not enjoying mathematical proofs that much,” he said with a laugh.

A fascination with what existed “beyond Earth” prompted Palmer to declare a second major in astronomy as an undergraduate student at USC. But it wasn’t until he took an upper-level course in quantum mechanics—and became enamored with its mathematical intricacies—that he developed a deeper appreciation for physics. 

“It was a new way to use many different aspects of math,” Palmer said. “There’s linear algebra and complex numbers. Taking these integrals and mixing all that up in a pot was really fun for me. But there was also some new physics that was deeply weird, and I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Palmer needed only one quantum mechanics course to meet the requirements of an astronomy major but enjoyed it so much that he took two. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and astronomy in 2007, he took a short drive south to UC San Diego to continue his studies—this time as a Ph.D. student in physics.

Right place, right time

Once Palmer decided to search for the Higgs boson, he joined the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at the LHC. Palmer teamed up with a group that was looking for evidence of the Higgs boson’s decay into two photons during proton-proton collisions.

This turned out to be a serendipitous assignment. His group ultimately saw an enormous excess of Higgs bosons in their analysis. 

“At the time in 2011, no one else at CMS had actually seen much of anything in their data, and in my analysis there was the biggest excess of Higgs boson particles in any of CMS’ searches,” Palmer said. “The discovery was literally happening at my fingertips.”

Palmer was so focused on the work that he didn’t have time to get excited about the actual discovery of the Higgs boson, which was confirmed and publicized in 2012.

“There was a whole lot of double- and triple-checking everything in early 2012. I wasn’t sleeping all that much,” he said. “I got excited afterward.” 

With one major discovery under his belt, Palmer was hooked on Higgs. After earning his Ph.D. in 2014, he became a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, where he participated in luminosity experiments and studied the Higgs boson’s decay to bottom quarks—the “most elusive decay” anyone had observed up to that point. 

In 2021, Palmer joined UMD with plans to study signatures of the Higgs boson in greater detail and depth, while also having the flexibility to explore other research interests down the line. 

“One of the things that I really love about this department is that there are so many different types of research that are represented by the faculty,” Palmer said. “In 10 years, if I want to do something different, I don’t know any place where it would be easier.”

Continent-spanning research

Palmer continues to participate in LHC experiments, and much of his work can be done without ever leaving campus. He is part of a team that is studying a new CMS detector, called the MIP Timing Detector, that will more precisely measure charged particles. Because the CMS experiment will need to be operational at -30 degrees Celsius, Palmer and his team are building a cold box at UMD to test components of the detector under extreme conditions.

This research is funded by a Department of Energy grant, which also supports the work of Physics Professor Sarah Eno and Associate Professor Alberto Belloni. Though all three faculty members are involved in LHC experiments, Palmer said they each have their own interests and areas of expertise, which keeps things interesting.

“It’s nice to see what other people are doing, and you don’t always get that when you work in a group that has all the same physics interests,” Palmer said. “It’s also good for the students because they really get to see what is going on in vastly different corners of the experiment, which is important in a giant experiment like CMS that has 3,000-some people in it.” 

In addition to his research, Palmer works to make physics a more inclusive field and is currently exploring ways to improve student mentorship and support for students from historically underrepresented groups. He serves on the executive committee of the American Physical Society’s Forum on Diversity & Inclusion, as well as the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences’ Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Council. He is also the director of Pathway to Physics PhD (P3), a UMD fellowship program that offers fully funded physics degrees, with priority given to applicants from historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

Eye on the collider

When he’s not busy with campus initiatives or teaching classes, Palmer keeps tabs on the data flowing out of the LHC. A monitor next to his office door displays numbers and charts showing the latest data from LHC experiments, including the luminosity measurements that Palmer specializes in. 

“Most of the time I’m engaged in my classes and meetings and other things that I’m immediately involved with,” Palmer said, “but I’m always keeping an eye on what’s going on at the LHC out of the corner of my eye.”

Palmer’s research—and a touch of luck—brought him face-to-face with some of the biggest discoveries in physics. When the next uncharted phenomenon shows up in an experiment, Palmer doesn’t want to miss it.


Written by Emily Nunez

Calling All Experimentalists, Designers, Fixers and Tinkerers

Two of the best-kept secrets in the University of Maryland’s Department of Physics are its Vortex Makerspace and a small class held in the makerspace that is dedicated to the practical skills needed for physics experimentation.

Since 2019, Professor Daniel Lathrop has taught a unique 400-level laboratory course in the Vortex Makerspace (formerly the Physics Welding Shop), which is tucked behind the John S. Toll Physics Building. Designed to teach students hands-on ways to bring their ideas to life, the class touches on topics such as carpentry, circuitry and 3D printing. Lathrop guides the students as they design, plan, build and demo their creations inspired by the semester’s physics lecture topics. But it’s not all about a student’s ability to build from scratch, Lathrop said.

“One thing I really wanted to accomplish with this class was to expose students to skills that they wouldn’t usually come across in their conventional classroom studies,” Lathrop explained. “That not only includes how to make things with their hands but also how to develop soft skills like leadership, budgeting, communication and teamwork—all qualities that are needed in real-life careers in physics.”

To simulate the kinds of situations, goals and challenges that physics experimentalists often encounter, Lathrop wove together 12 weeks of interactive lectures, field trips, training sessions and demonstrations. As his unique lesson plans for the class quickly spread by word of mouth, physics majors eager for a more hands-on learning experience registered for the class.

One of those students, Alexandra Pick-Aluas (B.S. ’22, physics), first heard glowing reviews about Lathrop’s class from two friends and was intrigued by the prospect of a lab elective that could give her a sneak peek into the professional future she hoped to pursue. She realized quickly that the class was unlike any she’d ever taken. 

“We were given an introduction to welding, which was obviously something I never tried before,” Pick-Aluas explained. “I learned how to weld pieces of metal together and got to see the difference in outcomes for the different metals I used. For example, aluminum is really easy to melt and that’s one reason why it’s a notoriously difficult metal to weld. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s a much more enlightening experience to actually see it in action in front of me.”PHYS 499X students demonstrate their Spring 2022 semester project, a liquid nitrogen-cooled superconducting loop. From left to right: Peiyu Qin, Alexandra Pick-Aluas, Meyer Taffel, Noah Doney, Ankith Rajashekar, Brian Robbins, and Dylan Christopherson. Image courtesy of Daniel Lathrop.PHYS 499X students demonstrate their Spring 2022 semester project, a liquid nitrogen-cooled superconducting loop. From left to right: Peiyu Qin, Alexandra Pick-Aluas, Meyer Taffel, Noah Doney, Ankith Rajashekar, Brian Robbins, and Dylan Christopherson. Image courtesy of Daniel Lathrop.

Welding was just one skill Pick-Aluas developed during the class. For their final project, Pick-Aluas and her group members built a superconducting loop—an infinitely flowing electric current with no power source—with materials like scrap metal, a bicycle wheel spoke and superconducting tape. Guided by Lathrop, they designed a suitable prototype within a limited budget, ordered their required materials from specialized vendors, constructed their design and wrote a manual explaining how their project functioned.  

“Even though our project didn’t exactly work the way we originally wanted it to, the entire process it took to make the superconducting loop is something I’ll always remember,” Pick-Aluas said. “Professor Lathrop says that in reality, failures and setbacks should be expected before making progress.”

She hopes that more physics majors take PHYS 499X before they graduate. For Pick-Aluas, who is now assisting Lathrop in his lab as she prepares for graduate school, the expertise she gained from the course helped shape her own career goals. 

“At first, I was a little intimidated, but the class made me feel a lot more comfortable with these skills. Potentially applying them on the job is a little less daunting to me now,” Pick-Alaus explained. “PHYS 499X is a really good overview of what you can expect in a real-life physics-related profession, whether it’s in academia or in industry.” 

Beyond the class, physics majors can also use the Vortex Makerspace—which is housed within the same single-room building as PHYS 499X—for all their experimentalist aspirations. Thanks to key efforts from UMD Physics Director of Education Donna Hammer, Vortex provides a dedicated time and place for students to work on meaningful projects of their own. Equipped with saws, welders, wires, wrenches and other knickknacks ready for students to use, the makerspace also encourages students to walk in and chat with Vortex’s ‘shop managers’ if they need additional guidance, resources or someone to simply bounce ideas off of.

“We’re open four afternoons a week to anyone during the semester—no experience or background necessary,” said Jake Lyon, a senior physics major and vice president of the Vortex Makerspace. “Vortex frequently holds training sessions and workshops for a variety of topics, like intro into basic coding or circuitry.”

Jake Lyon (right) teaches a student how to solder a simple circuit at the UMD Physics Vortex Makerspace.Jake Lyon (right) teaches a student how to solder a simple circuit at the UMD Physics Vortex Makerspace.Lyon became involved with the makerspace as a sophomore. Over the next few years, he attended a variety of training sessions and eventually developed an arsenal of handy skills from 3D printing to soldering. Then he tested this newly acquired knowledge, applying it to the projects he took on at the makerspace, including his personal favorite, fixing a broken megaphone. He believes taking the megaphone apart, figuring out how it worked and diagnosing what went wrong was an experience that will stay with him long after he graduates.

“The Vortex is a fantastic place to learn and get comfortable with the basic parts of fabrication with the right equipment while also getting to know the physics makers community,” Lyon said. “We facilitate learning but try to encourage teamwork and communication with everyone as well.”

In addition to the activities held during the semester, the Vortex Makerspace also offers a series of summer programs, including the Physics Makers Camp for high school students looking to get a head start on creative thinking and design, run by Outreach Coordinator Angel Torres. And although Vortex is run by physics undergraduates, Lyon said the organization welcomes anyone who wants to bring a project to life.

“We have a good lineup of ideas for workshops in the spring semester, so anyone—including non-physics majors—looking to acquire a new handy skill or two is welcome to stop by,” Lyon said. “Just bring an idea and we’ll bring the tools.” 

Written by Georgia Jiang 

Nathan Schine Twists Photons and Cools Atoms in a Unique Quantum Dance

Deepening our understanding of the quantum world and developing new tools to peer into it is a very active area of physics research today. In this crowded field full of diverse theoretical ideas and physical tools, Assistant Professor and JQI Fellow Nathan Schine has managed to carve out a distinctive space for himself and his lab.Nathan SchineNathan Schine

Schine’s research program manipulates the interactions between atoms and photons—the particles that make up light—in novel, well-controlled ways in order to simulate other, harder-to-probe quantum phenomena. To coax the photons into new simulation patterns, Schine is using unique arrangements of mirrors to bounce photons around. He is also strategically placing atoms in the photons’ way with the help of precisely controlled laser beams. To boot, the atoms he is using (ytterbium) have a relatively complex structure, giving Schine extra avenues to explore. He has been able to create this unique niche by combining the experimental expertise he gained from graduate school and postdoctoral research with his theoretical big-picture savvy.

Schine has been slowly homing in on his academic sweet spot for much of his life. Growing up, his interests were broad—they included science and math, but also history and other areas of the humanities. “It wasn't like I knew from an early age that I was going to go be a physicist,” Schine says.

Science wasn’t outside the realm of Schine’s imagination, however. His father was a chemistry teacher, his mother had a degree in math, and his grandfather was a physics professor at Vanderbilt University. 

Keeping his options open, Schine attended Williams College. Ranked first among U.S. liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report, Williams boasts an unusually strong science and math program. Schine was interested in math, but eventually found it to be too abstract for his taste. “When math got into proving the existence of a solution to a problem and not actually solving the problem, I sort of lost the thread a bit,” he recalls. Instead, he found that the part of math he enjoyed most could be gotten through physics, so he dove deeper into the subject. 

An undergraduate research project sealed the deal for Schine as a physicist and experimentalist. He started working in the lab of his soon-to-be quantum mechanics professor, Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy at Williams Protik Majumder, midway through his sophomore year.

Under Majumder’s supervision, Schine started to get a taste for experimental physics. He was performing spectroscopic measurements on indium atoms as a sophomore and continued working with Majumder until he graduated. Indium, with its three loosely bound, outermost electrons, is hard to model theoretically, and Majumder’s lab collaborated with theorists to benchmark their calculations and zero in on precise values. 

Schine relished the chance to make a real contribution to the project. He also found joy in tinkering in the lab, finding his calling as an experimentalist. “I liked the day-to-day aspects of it, the actual process of building a laser or something,” Schine says. “A lot of it is very tactile and building up this sort of Rube Goldberg device that happens to be useful for physics—that, I think, is a lot of fun.”

Majumder had a slightly different take on what set Schine apart in his lab. “He was really unusual, even as a 20-year-old, in being able to balance comfortably the very hands-on build stuff with the bigger intellectual picture, which is obviously something that's been characteristic of his career since then,” Majumder says. Schine’s research with Majumder culminated in a senior thesis and a peer-reviewed publication

Schine was inspired by his undergraduate research experience and decided to pursue graduate school. His chops setting up lasers and other experimental equipment meant he could hit the ground running and start contributing right away to the brand-new lab of Jonathan Simon at the University of Chicago. 

The lab Simon was envisioning involved filling an optical cavity—a set of mirrors trapping light and bouncing it back and forth between them—with ultracold rubidium atoms. The idea was to use the photons themselves as a quantum playground, used to re-create and study quantum phenomena that happen in other, less accessible settings. 

A lot of the interesting quantum phenomena that appear in real materials are hard to peer into at the quantum level but are nevertheless important for our daily lives because of their ubiquitous applications in technology. In Simon’s lab, precisely controlled photons can play a similar role to electrons inside of a material. Studying how these photons behave in a cavity and measuring them directly can then give clues about what happens inside the chunks of material. 

There is one obvious limitation for photons playing the part of electrons: They don’t have an electric charge. And charged electrons—specifically in magnetic fields—are responsible for a range of interesting material effects that might need simulating. 

Back in the early 1980s, physicists discovered one such effect.  A thin layer of semiconductor placed inside a strong magnetic field was found to conduct electricity in very precise chunks. As the magnetic field is increased, the conductivity doesn’t change for a while—it stays at one plateau—and then hops abruptly to another plateau. This is known as the integer quantum Hall effect (IQHE) because the plateaus appeared at very regularly spaced integer values.

Even more strangely, for very cleanly engineered semiconductors, experimentalists found sub-plateaus within the plateaus, appearing at precise fractions of the previous integer values. They termed this, predictably, the fractional quantum Hall effect (FQHE). The origins of these fractional plateaus are largely still a mystery, although physicists are pretty certain that it has something to do with interactions between electrons giving rise to unexpected collective behaviors. If there was a way to simulate the full quantum theory of the FQHE, it might reveal new insights into what’s going on. 

Simon and Schine, along with their labmates, hatched a plan. They conceived of a new way to make photons behave as though they have charge and live in a magnetic field that could, in principle, allow the photons to interact with each other and simulate the FQHE. Their plan involved a wonky cavity: four mirrors aligned to bounce light around in a twisted bow-tie configuration over and over again, with one of the mirrors slightly askew, as in the diagram shown below.

Photons and atoms in Schine’s tilted bow-tie cavity. (Credit: Nathan Schine/JQI)Photons and atoms in Schine’s tilted bow-tie cavity. (Credit: Nathan Schine/JQI)

Schine and his labmates focused on what happened along a plane at the center of this cavity. There, the photons were analogous to electrons traveling inside a thin material like in either of the Hall effects. The twisted mirror configuration causes the photons to twist around, much like electrons precess around inside a magnetic field. 

With careful cavity design, they were able to make the analogy come to life and make their photons replicate the IQHE in its full glory. They published this result in the journal Nature

To go beyond integer quantum Hall physics, the particles need to interact with one another—not just pass through each other, like photons are wont to do. That’s where atoms entered the picture. Previously, scientists had worked out a technique that allows atoms to serve as an intermediary through which photons can talk to each other. 

In parallel with the twisted cavity work, Simon’s lab had been working on this atom-assisted approach to making photons interact with each other. This involved cooling a gas of rubidium atoms to extremely low temperatures, just a touch above absolute zero. Then, the light was tuned to a particular color that would allow one of the rubidium atoms to absorb a single photon. This atom then prevented any nearby atoms from absorbing a photon, ensuring no other photon got too close. This created an effective interaction between photons, where they were averse to being too close to one another. 

The next step was to combine the two techniques: put the rubidium inside the skewed bowtie cavity. The cavity makes photons act like electrons in a magnetic field, and the atoms create a medium through which the photons can interact. The combination created the right conditions for FQHE physics. Although short-lived, the photons in Schine’s experiment appeared to indeed exhibit the hallmarks of fractional quantum Hall physics. Schine and his labmates published this result in the journal Nature

This was the first time the fractional quantum Hall effect had been simulated in any medium. For his graduate work, Schine was named a finalist for a thesis prize from the American Physical Society’s Division of Atomic Molecular and Optical Physics, the most prestigious thesis award in this field. 

Schine was still circling around his ultimate niche, though, and he sought to broaden his experimental skillset during his postdoctoral studies. He joined the group of Adam Kaufman at JILA at the University of Colorado Boulder (sometimes snarkily called JQI West). Kaufman’s lab manipulates atoms with light, using a tool called optical tweezers—laser beams focused down to a very narrow spot, intense enough to hold an atom in place. 

Schine, Kaufman, and collaborators used these optical tweezers to put a new spin on atomic clocks, which are the most precise timekeepers we have. They work by counting the intrinsic ticking of individual atoms. Precise as they are, scientists are actively working on making them even more so, both for better technology like navigation and geolocation and for scientific inquiries, like the basic nature of fundamental constants and gravity

The team endeavored to use a fundamentally quantum property—entanglement—to make pairs of atoms tick in tandem, thereby making the clock more precise. They cooled a gas of strontium atoms just above absolute zero and used optical tweezers to create a large array of atom pairs. These pairs were then made to interact using the same trick Schine had used during his graduate work: one atom absorbing a photon prevented another atom nearby from doing so as well, thus making their behavior depend on one another. Generating entangled atoms like this is a promising way to improve clock performance. They published this work in the journal Nature Physics

Now, Schine is starting to build up his own lab here at the University of Maryland. When deciding exactly what kind of experiment to embark upon, Schine was guided by his graduate school advisor Simon’s philosophy. “There are different strategies for setting up experiments,” Schine says. “But I think Jon’s was very much to build something that no one else has done before experimentally—to put ourselves in an area where there's a lot of low-hanging fruit.” Schine explained that this will involve combining his optical cavity expertise with an array of tweezer-trapped atoms, now using ytterbium. For instance, he predicts this will allow dramatic improvements in performing quantum measurements, which is an essential part of quantum computing or quantum simulation experiments. 

As Schine is assembling his lab and unique research program, he encourages interested students and postdocs to reach out to him. And, according to Schine’s undergraduate adviser, Schine’s teaching and mentoring abilities promise to be excellent. “One of the things we really work hard at in a place like Williams,” Majumder says, “is to make sure our students are not just the ones who can get into the lab, hide in a corner and just do amazing work. And that really comes through with Nathan. He's just such a good explainer of what he's doing. And he's so enthusiastic—it's very infectious.”

Story by Dina Genkina

Alum Jonathan Hoffman Heads Toward New Horizon in Navigation Science

As a PhD graduation present, UMD physics alumnus Jonathan Hoffman’s adviser gave him a signed copy of the book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. The book follows John Harrison, an 18th-century carpenter who took it upon himself to solve what was known as the longitude problem.

Jonathan Hoffman Jonathan Hoffman Back then, ships at sea had no way of measuring their longitude—their position east or west of the prime meridian—causing many to get lost and often shipwrecked as a result. Harrison built five generations of clocks—which he named H1 through H5—culminating in the most precise clock of his time that sailors could use to precisely track the sun’s location at noon and thus infer their longitude.

Longitude quickly became Hoffman’s favorite book. Eight years later, as a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Hoffman started a new program called H6 seeking to build a ‘spiritual successor’ to Harrison’s clocks: a “6th clock” that would be a compact, affordable, and precise device that would help navigate in situations where a GPS signal is unavailable. “It's the clock that Harrison would build to solve today's timing problem,” Hoffman says. 

Harrison’s story was mired in controversy. In 1714, the British Parliament announced the Longitude Prize, an award of up to 20,000 pounds for anyone who could solve the longitude problem, but it was overseen by the royal astronomer—a proponent of the mainstream star-gazing (rather than Harrison’s timekeeping) approach. Although Harrison was awarded various prizes throughout his 45 years of work, he was never officially awarded the full prize.

As a program manager at DARPA, Hoffman’s role parallels not that of Harrison, but that of the Board of Longitude, which was established to oversee the prize. But his H6 program also seeks to avoid the mistakes made by that board. Instead of looking for a solution from a particular well-established technology, Hoffman wants to give scientists the opportunity to bring in new outside-the-box ideas. “I wanted to question if there’s a different way, a way of going back to the drawing board and making clocks, something that could be incredibly small but still maintain time correct to a microsecond for up to a week,” Hoffman says.

Scientific Roots

Hoffman hadn’t always had an eye toward project management. Like most who pursue a physics PhD, he grew up interested in science, broadly defined. “I always would like to grab books and look at astronomy pictures,” Hoffman recalls. Through high school and college, his interests in science, and physics in particular, deepened further. “I think it's fascinating that there's an underlying connection and description and law for how things function,” he says.

Entering graduate school at UMD in 2009, Hoffman intended to study string theory. “I was really enamored with the idea of understanding how all of the forces were unified,” he recalls. But a conversation with a theoretical physics professor at UMD steered Hoffman towards a more practical path in experimental physics. 

With an eye towards the future, Hoffman joined a lab overseen by Professors Luis Orozco and Steve Rolston, in collaboration with Fredrick Wellstood and Chris Lobb, working on a novel idea to combine different quantum computing technologies for the best of both worlds. The idea involved placing ultracold atoms—atoms cooled just a tad above absolute zero—next to superconducting qubits. Getting ultracold atoms and superconducting qubits close enough to each other and tuned appropriately to communicate with one another was a difficult proposition that had never been attempted before. To aid in the quest, the team decided to trap atoms in a light trap produced just outside an optical fiber. To coax an optical fiber into carrying most of the light just outside itself, rather than at its center, it was necessary to stretch the fiber incredibly thin—more than a hundred times smaller than a human hair.

The bulk of Hoffman’s graduate school work was to devise a technique for stretching optical fibers to that size, while ensuring that they continued to guide most of the light along their path. The requirements were stringent—just a few stray, unguided photons would destroy the superconducting state if they hit it. Virtually all of the light needed to remain guided by the fiber, trapping atoms. Hoffman and his labmates devised a bespoke machine for pulling the fiber, and a careful protocol that resulted in fibers that could retain a record 99.95% of the light.

Although the process was at times arduous, Hoffman credits his time in graduate school with teaching him to persist through a difficult problem. “Practically, day to day,” Hoffman says, “I don't think graduate school was as exciting and rewarding as what I do now. But it did teach some very important lessons about determination and focus.”

A Taste of the Bigger Picture

After graduating from UMD (and receiving his fortuitous graduation present) in 2014, Hoffman was still unsure what he wanted to do. A former student from the same lab told him about a job at Booz Allen Hamilton. “He said ‘you will help advise on who should get funding and you will follow people's work’,” Hoffman says. “And I didn't actually really understand what any of that meant, but I was lucky because I ended up loving it.”

The job description turned out to be exactly correct. At Booz Allen, Hoffman worked as an assistant to program managers at DARPA, learning about the work funded through the programs, and advising. “Having worked on a very particular problem for six years,” Hoffman says, “it was just an entirely broader array of subjects. I was looking at a field as a whole and seeing where there are technology gaps and how you can close them, helping advise on or what needs investment.”

Hoffman reveled in seeing the bigger picture and picking out areas where fundamental science, slightly refined, could benefit technology. He got to learn about and support programs in a broad array of fields, including atomic physics, chemical spectroscopy, integrated photonics and positioning, navigation, and timing. He worked alongside DARPA program managers and becoming one himself gradually became a career goal.

Inspired in part by Harrison’s story in the Longitude book, the related topics of positioning, navigation, and timing quickly became among Hoffman’s chief interests, along with quantum sensing. As the navigation-related program he was supporting was coming to a close, Hoffman realized that he wanted to dig deeper. As a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor, he would have been reassigned to other fields, so he found a new role at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) where he was able to do a mix of research work and program management.

While at ARL, Hoffman collaborated with several UMD professors at the Quantum Technology Center and the Joint Quantum Institute. He worked closely with JQI Fellow and QTC Director Ronald Walsworth on quantum sensing problems—Walsworth’s area of expertise. He also continued thinking about positioning, navigation, and timing and started a program to create smaller clocks for portable GPS devices.

Juggling Programs and People

During his time at ARL, Hoffman was developing his ideas about alternative ways to make affordable yet precise clocks. When the opportunity arose to interview for a program management role at DARPA, he pitched his plan to encourage new approaches to the problem. “I guess they liked it well enough because they hired me,” Hoffman says.

Hoffman’s H6 program is set to begin in the coming months. Since arriving at DARPA in 2021, however, Hoffman’s interests have only broadened. He now dreams of a program to create portable MRI’s that could be an affordable tool in every doctor’s office and is managing other programs in quantum sensing and communication.

What he finds particularly rewarding about his work is the collaboration with a huge range of experts in different fields, from scientists to generals. “It is a really broad experience,” Hoffman says. “Working with academia, national labs, industry, large businesses, small businesses—it’s really great to get all of those perspectives and be able to interact with leaders across multiple fields.”

To continue interacting with many partners to make the best possible scientific advances, Hoffman encourages a broad range of people to work with DARPA and support their mission. He says people can come in as contractors, subject matter experts, apply for small business funding through various mechanisms, apply for young faculty awards, or apply for research grants and more.

Overall, Hofmann has no regrets about his transition from in-the-lab scientific work to program management. “It's absolutely important and it's fascinating and rewarding to understand and just be motivated by the specific science, but it's always been helpful for me having the larger picture of where this would go in the long-term plan.”

Story by Dina Genkina