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Nathan Wilson | Meet the MCQSTians: in this series, we regularly feature members of the MCQST community.
“Coming to Munich was an easy decision.”
Nathan P. Wilson is an MCQST START Fellow who joined the Finley Group at the Walter Schottky Institute at TUM in 2020. We invited Nathan to share what he enjoys most about his career, why he loves living in Munich, and why it's important for early-career scientists to ask the "dumb questions."
Can you briefly explain your research within the START Fellowship?
Summary for the specialists: we are fabricating gate-defined or proximity-effect superlattices in 2D semiconductors as a route to creating a reprogrammable Hubbard model simulator.
A little bit broader: artificial lattices of quantum particles such as atoms or electrons have been studied theoretically and experimentally for many decades. When the particles in the artificial lattices interact with each other, correlated behaviors such as magnetism, superfluidity, or incompressible states can emerge. Such systems can be considered as a class of analog quantum simulators, which simulate the physics which emerge naturally in crystals. Optical lattices of ultracold atoms are the state-of-the-art technology in this regard.
Two-dimensional (2D) materials (e.g. graphene) have some interesting properties which make them an attractive platform for studying such artificial lattice physics, namely that inter-particle interactions tend to be very strong in low-D systems. Furthermore, since 2D layers are held together by van der Waals (vdW) forces, 2D materials also offer the possibility to easily stack different types of materials together to form customized heterostructures with highly tunable properties.
An artificial lattice in 2D materials would consist of a series of regularly arranged potential wells (quantum dots, if you like). The challenge here is that, to confine single electrons (or other quasiparticles like excitons) and get them to interact strongly, the size and spacing of the trap sites both have to be quite small, on the order of a few to 10s of nm. Fortunately, the unique fabrication techniques which are made possible by their 2D nature allow for some novel and very creative approaches to creating such superlattices.
What does your day-to-day work look like?
One of the great things about this stage of my career is that my day-to-day activities vary quite a bit. Some weeks, I spend a lot of time in the cleanroom trying to punch nanometer-scale holes in 2D materials. Some weeks, I spend a lot of time in the optics lab doing spectroscopy. Some weeks, my focus is on writing, training students, etc. The only thing that’s really constant—and I think this is true for practically everybody in academia—is the 1-2 hours every morning of replying to emails.
What keeps you excited and makes you want to start working in the morning?
Teaching has always been fun and exciting for me, and is one of the main reasons why a research career in academia is important to me. The START fellowship allowed me to start a small subgroup, and my team now has a Ph.D. student and several Master’s/Bachelor’s students. Teaching them and helping them with their projects the most exciting part of my job. In a close second place is meeting and learning about other researchers in the Munich (and more broadly, the European) quantum community. Despite the fact that we’re all working and collaborating together via the global internet, there’s still a big divide between US and European researchers, and I have really been able to learn a lot from being immersed in a new community.
Did you always want to be a quantum scientist when you were younger?
When I was young, I wanted to do something creative, at various points wanting to be an artist or a pianist or an architect. Physics caught my eye as a teenager, and thanks to some absolutely fantastic science teachers, I was able to cultivate that interest into a career. At first I wanted to study astrophysics, but very quickly realized that the hands-on experience of tabletop experimentation, and in particular quantum materials and optics, allows for a lot of creativity.
What drew you to Munich (and MCQST)?
There’s a great scientific environment in Germany, and especially in Munich, surrounding quantum science. Research here is very positive and forward looking, and the federal funding programs here reward careful, in-depth work. At the same time, MCQST’s programs like the START Fellowship or Seed Funding also enable higher-risk, exploratory research. Combined with the excellent facilities and personnel available in my host group (Prof. J. Finley), coming to Munich was an easy decision. On a more personal level, living in Munich has a lot of other great benefits. The quality of life is great, the food and beer are great, the Alps are nearby, there are tons of museums, and most of Europe can be reached by a short train or plane trip. It’s a great place to do research, and a great place to live.
Outside of science, what do you enjoy doing most?
I really like to cook. In particular, anything that involves culturing (cheesemaking, breadmaking, etc.) is really fascinating to me. I think this is because culturing is very sensitive to a lot of different conditions like temperature, time, and chemistry. As a hobbyist, you don’t usually have perfect control of the culturing conditions and often end up with unexpected results—for better or for worse. It’s always exciting to slice open a cheese you’ve been tending for the better part of a year and tasting it for the first time!
If you weren't a scientist, what do you think you would be doing now?
Maybe I would have pursued a career in medicine. My mom is an emergency room nurse and I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by the work that she does. It’s difficult and often thankless, especially during a pandemic, but nevertheless rewarding.
What advice would you give to someone at the beginning of their science career?
For students: it is imperative to ask the “dumb questions” early on. You’ll learn exponentially faster once you understand the basics, and asking such questions demonstrates self-awareness, curiosity, and maturity, all of which are vital in research. Question-asking is the #1 trait that I look for in a prospective student!
For postdocs: do your best to establish a diverse network of collaborators and branch out as much as possible; avoid being too specialized!
What kind of support do you think it’s important for early career scientists to have?
At the level of a Ph.D. student, it’s very important to be routinely involved with grant writing, mentorship, lab organization, purchasing, journal review, conference organization, etc. These soft skills should be developed before your first postdoc, and I was very lucky to get a lot of experience with the above during my Ph.D.
I mentioned this above, but as a postdoc, MCQST has great programs, like the START Fellowship or Seed Funding (which postdocs can apply for), that offer a lot of independence. Programs like these are unfortunately not available everywhere, so in this sense MCQST is really a great role model for other large-scale projects.