Alessandra Lanzara, Ph.D., is a grantee in the foundation's Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems initiative and directs the Lanzara Research Group at the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Her group studies how electrons and atoms interact with intense, ultra-short optical pulses of light--a cutting-edge technique called angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy, or ARPES. This experimental tool gives scientists a glimpse into the secret lives of electrons and atoms, and could one day allow us to alter their properties using just a flash of light.
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Alessandra discusses her work unraveling the behavior of quantum materials, and the connections between experimental physics and archaeology.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
It all started during a school field trip to an amusement park. My teacher organized this trip as a fun way to learn about fundamental physics in our everyday life. While initially I was excited about being able to spend an entire school day at the amusement park, by the end of the day I was actually more enthusiastic about the physics underlying the roller coasters! This was a defining moment, when I realized that I wanted to become a physicist.
Looking back, however, I believe that the seed was already planted, and my parents have inspired me throughout all my childhood. I recall endless hours spent with my dad inventing a "new motor" or designing a "new car". Enthusiasm for discovery and invention, thinking without creating any artificial barriers--these are probably the most beautiful presents that my parents have given me.
What areas in science are you most interested in solving?
I am fascinated by the rich and mysterious properties of quantum materials, materials where quantum mechanics plays a key role in determining their unconventional behavior.
My interest spans from understanding their equilibrium properties, by uncovering how electrons move and how they interact within each other and with other excitations; to using ultrashort and intense pulses of light to manipulate quantum materials behavior and to induce new regimes that do not exist in equilibrium.
Just like understanding of semiconductors led to the silicon revolution, understanding quantum materials will mark new revolutions in technology leading to a new era of computing.
How do your colleagues help you achieve your goals?
I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by amazing people that are a constant inspiration for me: from my Ph.D. advisor, an unconventional thinker driven by a passion for science, to my colleagues here at Berkeley who continuously push me to always try something more, to design the next harder experiment, and to challenge even what we think is known.
Working with dedicated, bright students and post-docs, and sharing--and confronting-- ideas, is an inspiring and beautiful process that leads to new unexplored paths and eventually, new discoveries.
What are your greatest challenges as a researcher?
As an experimental scientist, I often feel that my biggest limitation is the lack of sophisticated experimental tools that can further deepen and eventually uncover the mysterious force that drives new properties in materials. Often times, an experiment shows us the tip of an iceberg, but the lack of more sophisticated tools limits our complete mapping of the iceberg.
I like to compare science to archaeology, one of my passions. When archaeologists were digging in search of the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, they discovered several small and unique pieces that were just the tip of what turned to be an amazing and sophisticated civilization. Only more advanced tools and investments have allowed us to finally uncover a treasure that was hidden under our eyes for thousands of years, revealing one of the most rich and fascinating civilizations of the past.
What gets you going every day, and how do you stay motivated?
The mystery of the unknown and the passion for discovering natural truths. The unique feeling that follows from the discovery of something, even if it is just a tiny, tiny piece of a huge and still unsolved puzzle, keeps me motivated and enthusiastic about science.
Watch Alessandra and her colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory discuss the potential of angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy here.