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Reinhard receives NSF grant to study quantum physics with students

Reinhard receives NSF grant to study quantum physics with students

Exploring the universe at its most fundamental level drives Otterbein Assistant Professor Aaron Reinhard, who recently received a $400,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“CAREER grants are not easy to get,” said Bonnie Ward, assistant director in the Office of Grants and Sponsored Programs. “We don’t see a lot of them going to smaller institutions like ours. It’s an honor for Aaron and Otterbein.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is one of NSF's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

“I was pretty excited when I received the grant,” said Reinhard, who teaches in the Department of Physics. “The CAREER grants are one of the most competitive grant programs at the NSF. There is no small school division. You’re competing against everyone at big research universities.”

The grant, spread over a five-year period, will be used in part to fund Reinhard’s research on the effect of state-mixing interactions on the Rydberg excitation blockade, which could aid future research in quantum computing using neutral atoms. Many national governments and military agencies are funding quantum computing research in an effort to develop quantum computers for civilian, business and national security purposes, such as cryptanalysis.

“I really like my research because it allows me to investigate fundamental problems in science on a tabletop in a small room,” Reinhard said. “I don't need a huge facility or a lot of people.”

The Rydberg excitation blockade, a process whereby the strong interactions among highly excited atoms suppress or “block” laser excitation, is at the heart of Reinhard’s research. Atoms are cooled to extremely low temperatures, and then excited into high energy states, called Rydberg states, by shining a laser on them.

Reinhard and his students are studying state-mixing interactions, or processes that make the blockade less effective. Essentially, if one tries to put atoms into a given Rydberg state using a laser, the atoms will mix into other states, according to the project abstract Reinhard submitted to the NSF. This mixing "breaks the blockade" and leads to an undesirably large number of Rydberg atoms. The goals of the present research are to quantify the extent to which state mixing interactions reduce the blockade efficiency, to understand the physical mechanism which gives rise to the mixing, and to study the experimental parameters which lead to the best excitation blockade. Understanding these issues will allow other researchers to use the blockade in a way that minimizes unwanted effects when developing a quantum computer.

“What we are trying to do is make the basic science clear, really map out the basic science so other researchers can come along and use it for something practical,” Reinhard said.

The CAREER grant combines teaching and research, two subjects Reinhard approaches with passion.

“I really like working with students,” said Reinhard, who was selected as the Otterbein New Teacher of the Year award winner in 2014. “Otterbein students work hard and have a good attitude and this makes them very rewarding to work with. I enjoy the opportunity to share what I love about physics with others.  I find it very rewarding to do something difficult and do it well, and I try to instill this in my students.”

The funding allows Reinhard to employ two Otterbein undergraduate research students fulltime over the summer and to purchase the best research equipment available. The CAREER grant also features a teaching component. Reinhard plans to study the impact of metacognitive exercises in the classroom, and prepare separate modules on laser cooling and trapping, his specialty, for an integrative studies class and for physics majors.

“I’m hoping that the students I work with are going to be really well trained, and have a very good perspective on how research is done,” said Reinhard, who hopes to publish his research with his undergraduate research students as co-authors. “I think it will be wonderful training for students who want to go to graduate school in physics.”

One of those students, Michael Highman, a senior majoring in physics, has served as a lab assistant under Reinhard for two years.

“The work is challenging and Dr. Reinhard does a great job coming up with approachable projects that advance his lab goals, but can still engage undergraduates,” said Highman, who plans to go to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in physics. “So far I’ve gained many skills in terms of machining, optics alignment, and basic programming. I’ve also had the opportunity to attend the American Physical Society’s annual meeting two years in a row where I’ve met the best researchers in the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics and seen the work they’re doing in their labs. It has proven to be a valuable networking experience for me as well.”

Learn more about Otterbein's Department of Physics.