President’s Assistant Professor
National University of Singapore
AsianScientist (Jun. 25, 2021) – From the objects we touch, to the food we eat and the air we breathe—everything around us abides by the laws of physics. But if we take a closer look, at the atomic level, a classical understanding of physics starts to fail.
Enter quantum physics, which field explores nature’s physical properties at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles. Over the last century, researchers have made great strides in understanding quantum theory—applying it to build technology that the great physicists of the 20th century could only dream of. One such researcher is President’s Assistant Professor Loh Huanqian at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
By harnessing ultracold atoms and molecules as building blocks, Loh’s group develops tools to precisely control the motion, quantum states and arrangements of these particles—using them to construct models mimicking advanced materials. At the same time, these quantum “Lego” blocks could also be used to build scalable quantum computers that could outperform their classical counterparts.
For her work, Loh was named an International Rising Talent by the UNESCO and L’Oreal Foundation’s For Women in Science programme and was recognized in 2019 as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Scientists. Talking to Asian Scientist Magazine, Loh shares her goals for her research as well as the inspiration behind her work.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
I use single atoms as small quantum building blocks to model complex phenomena in nature.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
I am proudest of the research project where my lab successfully trapped single sodium atoms in an array of optical tweezers. Establishing individual control of sodium atoms is important for realizing the atoms as quantum building blocks for simulating interesting materials in nature.
We had built the experiment from the ground up and could achieve some of the laser cooling milestones relatively easily but trapping single sodium atoms proved to be challenging due to the light mass and excited state properties. Nevertheless, my students persevered in the lab and worked very hard to overcome the challenges. I am especially proud of my team for demonstrating such creativity and determination!
Furthermore, control over single atoms in an array paves the way for parallel quantum state initialization and readout of the atoms as quantum bits in a quantum simulation.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope my work on quantum simulators will allow us to gain insight on important materials science problems like understanding high-temperature superconductors to tackle sustainability issues.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
My brother, who is also a scientist, has always been a strong influence. Along the way, there were many excellent mentors who have inspired and motivated me.
I picked atomic, molecular, and optical physics as my preferred field of research starting from my undergraduate days. I found quantum physics intriguing and thought that atoms offered one of the cleanest systems for studying quantum physics. I liked the simplicity of controlling atoms and molecules with lasers.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
My biggest challenge is juggling academic research and motherhood. I am thankful for the support of my family, colleagues and students in this journey.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
While academic research is becoming increasingly narrow and specialized, solving the pressing problems of humanity like climate change and pandemics requires an interdisciplinary effort, where scientists and engineers of different fields actively reach out to each other to learn how they can work together.
Fostering such interdisciplinary collaborations remains one of the biggest challenges. More academics are now recognizing this issue and are taking steps to tackle it with new research funding schemes and different rubrics for evaluating scientists.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I probably would have become a teacher or a social worker. I enjoy interacting with young minds and helping them realize their potential. I am glad that I now can both teach and do research.
- What do you do outside of work to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?
I enjoy going outdoors with my family.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
Climate change. Solving such a complex problem requires a coherent multidisciplinary effort. I hope my research on quantum simulators, with an eye towards managing the world’s rising energy needs can help contribute a part of the solution.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Stay curious and open-minded. Persevere in your research work, and success will eventually come despite failures you will encounter along the way.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Loh Huanqian.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.