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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Physics Professor Lorenza Viola

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Lorenza Viola.1jpg.jpgLorenza Viola is a Professor of Physics and Director of the Quantum Information Science Initiative at the College. She’s a theoretical physicist whose stellar work on quantum mechanics, and specifically quantum information science, largely surpasses my ability to understand, let alone explain. But at the most basic level, she studies how tiny particles move and interact, and their complex behavior understood and harnessed for useful quantum tasks.

Viola grew up in Trento, Italy, where she graduated summa cum laude at the University of Trento with a undergraduate/masters degree in physics. She had originally considered astrophysics or even becoming a medical doctor, but as a junior fell in love with a year-long course on quantum mechanics and never looked back. Viola went on to the University of Padua, also in Italy, for her Ph.D. Her thesis was titled “Relativistic stochastic quantization through co-moving coordinates” — a mouthful, but one that came out of her work examining how the theory of quantum mechanics can be made to coexist with Einstein’s relativity theory that describes our Universe at the macro scale. While quantum theory is unquestionably necessary to explain physical behavior at the level of the the smallest particles in the world, as objects grow bigger they tend to lose their quantum qualities and behave according to the more familiar rules of classical mechanics instead. Making those rules come together in this “quantum-to-classical” transition is a difficult quest for physicists, one that she continues to explore today.

After earning her Ph.D. at Padua, Viola came to the U.S. and spent three years as a postdoc fellow at MIT. There she began working in the nascent field of quantum information science. Within this arena you find quantum computing, building a machine that works by quantum rules rather than the binary bits of our standard laptops and smartphones. Such quantum computers may eventually solve more complicated mathematical problems than our current devices, help simulate the complex quantum world itself, and make breakthroughs in cryptographic security.

Viola then spent nearly five years at the Los Almos National Laboratory, both in the theoretical division and in the computer and computational sciences division, before joining the Dartmouth faculty in 2004, along with her husband, physics professor Roberto Onofrio. Since arriving on campus, Viola has continued advancing and expanding her research, both in quantum information science and its implications for quantum matter. She boasts more than 7,500 individual citations and a h-index of 41, according to Google Scholar, giving her bragging rights at home over Onofrio, a formidable scholar in his own right.

We may not understand all of her work, but the source of Viola’s research grants shows how valuable they are. In the past few years, she has worked with grants from not only the National Science Foundation, but also the Department of Energy, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, and the Army Research Office & National Security Agency.

Two of Viola’s most impactful papers, with over 1,000 citations each, are “Dynamical suppression of decoherence in two-state quantum systems” and “Dynamical Decoupling of Open Quantum Systems.” For a (possibly) easier window into her work, here is a lecture she gave on quantum control theory in 2012:

While Viola says she wishes there were more professors at Dartmouth to explore the budding world of quantum physics, she enjoys teaching students of all levels. In her lab she currently works with two postdocs and three grad students, yet her favorite courses allow her to explain quantum mechanics to undergraduates for the first time, seeing some of them emerge from class with a spark of curiosity and the desire to learn more. This summer she’s teaching Physics 109: Statistical Mechanics II, then she’ll break in the fall and winter, and come back in the spring for another Statistical Mechanics course.

Addendum: Here’s a recent interview Viola gave to the Journal of Physics.

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