Prineha Narang is an assistant professor of computational materials science at Harvard University. She was also selected as a 2018 Moore Inventor Fellow for her invention, a tiny quantum sensor, which uses a novel and previously unexplored interaction mechanism between light and molecules to sense and identify individual molecules. If successful, this invention could speed the accurate identification of environmental toxins.
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Prineha discusses the intersection of quantum technology with other fields and what drives her persistent pursuit of big new ideas.
What made you want to become a scientist-inventor?
I got into physics very early on. I was good at handling complex equations, and I liked how physics relates to so many other areas of engineering. At the same time, I always loved the outdoors. Many people thought I was strange for having these two passions that seem at odds with each other. However, at some point I realized that technology doesn’t have to compete with the environment – it can actually help!
That viewpoint is now the foundation of my career. I like thinking about deep technology that doesn’t appear close to applications and asking how this technology can help the world. Currently, I’m working to develop inventions that harness the power of quantum mechanics to address big challenges like efficient energy technologies and monitoring the effects of climate change.
What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
Every day, I try to consider “what am I doing that’s most impactful?” I’m not just talking about publications, but an actual impact on people’s lives. For example, our group is using previously unexplored interactions between light and materials to create sensors that can rapidly identify environmental toxins. Technology like this could allow us to monitor changes in the ocean or the air on an unprecedented scale.
I also love working with my talented students and postdocs. They’re always surprising me with cool ideas, and they help me improve my own ideas by asking hard questions, challenging my way of thinking, and bringing their own unique points of view. I get so much out of my daily interactions with them.
What limitations or challenges do you face as a scientist-inventor?
One of the biggest challenges I face is convincing people that my ideas are worth supporting. There’s a lot of risk aversion, especially at the early stages of turning an idea into an invention. In addition, people often hear “quantum technology” and think it’s something far off in the distant future – but it’s not! We’re studying quantum interactions that can be used in actual devices with real use cases today.
The pressure to “play it safe” is especially heavy for junior faculty. We’re advised to just keep doing what we’re good at. I have my core expertise, but I don’t want to be limited by that. Good science happens at the intersection of different fields. Being a Moore Inventor Fellow allows me the freedom to break from the standard junior faculty trajectory, exploring other fields and collaborating with people whom I wouldn’t otherwise get to work with.
What do you think the public should understand about scientific inventions and research?
People often misunderstand the trajectory of scientific progress. Even if something appears promising, there are still many things we can’t anticipate, and risk is inherent. Unfortunately, some researchers exacerbate this issue by overselling what their work could deliver, which leaves people feeling burned. This is especially common with quantum technology, and I’ve encountered a lot of cynicism when proposing my ideas.
In my experience, an upfront, non-sales approach to communication is better. I like to explain the potential trajectory of our work visually: here’s where we are now, here’s the curve showing where we expect it will go, here are some other ways people think it might go, etc.
Is there someone you look up to, consider a mentor or who inspires you? Why?
I really admire Frances Arnold. She’s fearless! While I was a grad student at Caltech, I was deeply impressed by her work in the Resnick Sustainability Institute – and that was well before she became a Nobel laureate. I love how she confidently follows the ideas without feeling like she needs permission.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I believe our research has the potential to make a significant impact in the world. To realize this potential, we need to bridge the gap between ideas and applications. We’ve already started one company dedicated to this goal, and in five years, I hope there will be more companies working to turn our group’s ideas into tangible solutions for a wide variety of challenges.
As for me personally, my goal is to constantly reinvent myself as a scientist. I hope to continue evolving my research interests by embracing new ideas and working with an even more diverse group of collaborators. I truly believe that to make real progress, you have to step out of your comfort zone.
Images: Prineha speaking with team outdoors (main), NarangLab group shot and NarangLab meeting outdoors courtesy of NarangLab.