A Calling Realized
By Jacob Berkowitz
In 1997, Mary Ann Leung sold her house, quit her successful 16-year-long career as a trainer and instructional designer in the computer industry and, at age 38, returned to college to become a physician. Or so she thought. On her way to the medical sciences she discovered a long unrealized passion for math and the computational sciences. Now a Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellow (DOE CSGF), she is using high performance computing to understand the role of quantum mechanics in applications ranging from nanoscale engineering to the emerging field of quantum computing.
Leung found her groove during a National Science Foundation-sponsored undergraduate summer stint in the lab of Dr. William (Bill) Reinhardt, a University of Washington professor of chemistry and adjunct professor of physics.
“I fell in love with the work I did,” says Leung, now a third-year doctoral student in Dr. Reinhardt’s lab at the University of Washington. Her job that first summer was to develop a computer program to visualize the time propagation of solitons in the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). While planning a slide presentation of her work, she came across an image of a BEC generated by one of Dr. Reinhardt’s computer programs. It was a moment of scientific and personal epiphany.
“The image had a strong likeness to a piece of artwork that I’d created 20 years earlier. I decided at that point that I’d been visualizing math much earlier in life, but I just hadn’t realized it. So, seeing this image made me feel like I’d found my calling,” recalls Leung.
Ironically, had she returned to school several years earlier she would never have seen her calling. In 1924, Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose hypothesized that noninteracting atoms chilled to supercold temperatures (about 190 nanoKelvin) would condense into a new form of gaseous matter, the BEC. What’s remarkable about the BEC, they explained, is that in this supercold state the atoms would all go into the same quantum state: They would behave as a single super atom, a macroscopic quantum object large enough to be visible to the naked eye.
However, it wasn’t until 1995 that three independent research teams were successful in creating the first BEC by supercooling rubidium-87, lithium-7, and sodium atoms. This breakthrough has set off a global wave of experimental work with BECs. “They’re a wonderful place for people to explore the fundamentals of quantum mechanics because you can see the quantum effects,” says Leung, noting that BEC research has applications to fields ranging from superconductivity to nonlinear optics.