Mo’ heights mo’ challenges – Climbing mount grad school

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My wife’s love of mountain hiking and my interest in quantum thermodynamics collided in Telluride, Colorado.

We spent ten days in Telluride, where I spoke at the Information Engines at the Frontiers of Nanoscale Thermodynamics workshop. Telluride is a gorgeous city surrounded by mountains and scenic trails. My wife (Hasti) and I were looking for a leisurely activity one morning. We chose hiking Bear Creek Trail, a 5.1-mile hike with a 1092-foot elevation. This would have been a reasonable choice… back home.

Telluride’s elevation is 8,750 feet (ten times that of our hometown’s). This meant there was nothing leisurely about the hike. Ill-prepared, I dragged myself up the mountain in worn runners and tight jeans. My gasps for breath reminded me how new heights (a literal one in this case) could bring unexpected challenges – A lesson I’ve encountered many times as a graduate student.&

My wife and I atop bear creek trail

I completely squandered my undergrad. One story sums it up best. I was studying for my third-year statistical mechanics final when I realized I could pass the course without writing the final. So, I didn’t write the final. After four years of similar negligence, I somehow graduated, certain I’d left academics forever. Two years later, I rediscovered my love for physics and grieved about wasting my undergraduate. I decided to try again and apply for grad school.& I learned Canada had 17 Universities I could apply to with a 70 average; each one rejected me.

I was ecstatic to eventually be accepted into a master’s of math. But, the high didn’t last. Learning math and physics from popular science books and PBS videos is very different from studying for University exams. If I wanted to keep this opportunity, I had to learn how to study.

16 months later, I graduated with a 97 average and an offer to do a master’s of physics at the University of Waterloo. I would be working at the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC), supervised by Raymond Laflamme (one of the co-founders of the field of quantum computing). My first day at IQC felt surreal. I had become an efficient student and felt ready for the IQC. But, like the bear creek trail, another height would bring another challenge. Ultimately, grad school isn’t about getting good grades; it’s about researching. Raymond (Ray) gave me my first research project, and I was dumbfounded about where to start and too insecure about asking for help.

With Ray and& Jonathan Halliwell’s& (professor at Imperial College London and guitarist-extraordinaire) guidance, I published& my first paper& and accepted a Ph.D. offer from Ray. After publishing my second paper, I thought it would be smooth sailing through my Ph.D..& Alas, I was again mistaken. It’s also not enough to solve problems others give you; you need to come up with some problems on your own. So, I tried. I spent the first 8-months of my Ph.D. pursuing a problem I came up with, and It was a complete dud. It turns out the problems also need to be worth solving. For those keeping track, this is challenge number four.

I have now finished the third year of my Ph.D. (two, if you don’t count the year I “took off” to write a textbook with Ray and superconducting-qubit experimentalist, Prof. Chris Wilson). During that time, Nicole Yunger Halpern (NIST physicist, my new co-advisor, and Quantum Frontiers blogger) introduced me to the field of quantum thermodynamics. We’ve published a paper together (related blog post and Vanier interview) and have a second on the way. Despite that, I’m still grappling with that last challenge. I have no problem finding research questions that would be fun to solve. However, I’m still not sure which ones are worth solving. But, like the other challenges, I’m hopeful I’ll figure it out.

While this lesson was inspiring, the city of Telluride inspired me the most. Telluride is at a local minimum elevation, surrounded by mountains. Meaning there is virtually nowhere to go but up. I’m hoping the same is true for me.

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