Michaela Kleinert awarded funding for quantum mechanics research

Assistant Professor of Physics, Michaela Kleinert, was recently awarded a $229,428 grant by the National Science Foundation’s Research at Undergraduate Institutions program. The funding will support her research in the field of quantum mechanics.

The RUI program recognizes professors’ “substantial contributions to research and education” and promotes the “excitement of scientific discovery” at undergraduate institutions.

Freezing atoms

Kleinert’s proposal focuses on the combination of ultracold rubidium and calcium gases. Using lasers and magnetic fields, Kleinert’s magneto-optical trap cools room-temperature atoms to just above absolute zero.

A beach ball and garden hoses provide an analogy for a molecule and lasers in a magneto-optical trap. If the beach ball were hit precisely from six directions – top, bottom, left, right, front and back – by the streams of six hoses, it would just hover in the center without moving in any direction. Similarly, atoms can be trapped by using six laser beams from six directions.

As trapped atoms accumulate and slow, they can be combined to form heteronuclear dimers, molecules consisting of one rubidium and one calcium atom. This research will inform future studies of quantum processing, fundamental symmetries and high-precision spectroscopy.

“Nobody has done this before,” says Kleinert. “Nobody knows the exact quantum mechanical structure of these molecules, which could allow us to begin constructing quantum computers. This is what makes this research so important.” 

Providing student opportunities

The funding will allow for a range of student involvement inside and out of the lab. Kleinert will offer paid research positions, invite speakers to campus and fund students’ travel to relevant conferences.

“I’m really excited about involving students,” she says. “They will be exposed to a wide variety of topics — everything from magnetic fields, to state of the art lasers, to vacuum physics, to electronics and basic lab mechanics. This is a great preparation for future work in industry or academia.”

Kleinert hopes to inspire students to continue this type of work in higher education. First year students have already delved into working on circuit boards. Several seniors assisted Kleinert in the initial phases of her calcium research or are working with a high-powered pulsed laser system.

“This is really an exciting venture for students studying physics and for Willamette overall,” she says.