University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

PhD grad aims to take the mystery out of quantum science

Chancellor's Graduate Medal winner Neil Sinclair uses quantum principles to address real-world issues
November 14, 2016
Neil Sinclair, PhD grad and Chancellor's Graduate Medal winner, has made it his mission to demystify quantum physics by using its principles to address real-world issues. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Neil Sinclair, PhD grad and Chancellor's Graduate Medal winner, has made it his mission to demystify quantum physics by using its principles to address real-world issues. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Quantum mysteries, secure meetings with top United States defence officials, and months without seeing the sun: graduating PhD student Neil Sinclair's academic career has been diverse, to say the least.

It's not altogether surprising — the Chatham, Ont. transplant, who took home the Chancellor's Graduate Medal from last Thursday's convocation ceremony — has a story at the University of Calgary that extends back more than 10 years.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo, Sinclair sought his own co-op work term after none of the school's regular offerings appealed. After sending emails out across the country, he got a reply from Barry Sanders, professor in the Faculty of Science and director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology (IQST), who — as luck would have it — was staying in Waterloo for a conference. He hired Sinclair soon after the two met. Although Sinclair had already been studying physics, that fortuitous meeting would shape the course of his academic career.

In his new role, Sinclair was tasked with creating computer animations to help explain quantum science research to the public. Over the course of working on this project, Sinclair, who had spent little time studying quantum physics (or animations) at that point, pored over the literature and experiments about quantum physics and quantum information.

"Prior to my first job at UCalgary, I wasn't even sure about physics. It seemed complicated and hard," he says. "But after that experience, I saw why people are interested in doing physics. I went back to school and I was so excited and committed."

"Barry's opportunity did that for me because he allowed me to interact with his other grad students and other people involved in the work, and I could feel the spirit. They were trying to build things that work, and create new ideas that affect people in important ways."

Cutting-edge quantum research opportunities spark cross-country move

Quantum information science uses the novel properties of quantum physics to send and manipulate information in ways that are not possible using rules based on the classical laws of nature. Today's information and communication technology (like the Internet) rely on classical laws. Using quantum science, people across Canada and the world are developing advanced secure communication networks and building computers that can quickly solve important mathematical problems.

Spurred on by another work term researching quantum entanglement alongside Shohini Ghose, a renowned physics professor and former Sanders postdoc, Sinclair sought out an opportunity to work with Wolfgang Tittel, who had just arrived in Calgary and whose ideas about applying quantum physics in telecommunications networks had already been making waves in the research community.
"I was so lucky to have an opportunity to start working in a lab right from scratch," Sinclair says. "When you're here starting from the beginning, you have the ability not only to learn, but to create the environment that you want."

Research group aims to apply quantum physics to real-world issues

Sinclair researches technology to implement quantum information science in the real world. "I work in a lab tucked away in the basement of the Earth Sciences building, where I develop quantum memories using crystals. Quantum memories are devices that hold information encoded into quantum states. While doing this I also explore new physics, trying to understand how nature works at a deep level."

During his time as a graduate student, Sinclair had the opportunity to travel to several countries, including Russia and Bulgaria, to discuss and present his research. He worked with Tittel on a research project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with the United States Department of Defense, where he travelled to Washington to participate in important, secure meetings. He worked with members of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which maintains the global atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado.

As a PhD student, Sinclair, along with other researchers, developed a quantum memory that stored highly sensitive "entangled" quantum states that are important for implementing quantum science. Entangled states also allow strange things like quantum teleportation, which other members of Sinclair's group recently demonstrated over The City of Calgary's fibre optic network.

Desire for new perspectives fuels steps forward

Inspired by the demystification of physics afforded by his first opportunity working at UCalgary, Sinclair hopes to give others opportunities to understand physics and the work that physicists do. For example, he has lectured for the Quantum Mysteries and Paradoxes class, which aims to explain quantum phenomena to those outside of physics.

Important to Sinclair is getting the message out about what physicists really do, and what researchers do with their time and the funds provided to them. "We're not sitting there glued to the computer screen all day. We're doing things with our hands and having great discussions at the same time. Building things that are really useful for people is the sort of spirit that brings our group together. We want to do it on a large scale. Moreover, we want to let it be known that Canada has a serious role in advancing science in this regard," he explains.

As he goes forward in his career, Sinclair is looking to continue having discussions and hearing new perspectives through a position as a postdoc. Wherever he ends up, the University of Calgary will always be special to him.

"We do world-class stuff here, and we're really trying to benefit the scientific community. If you come here, and you care, and you want to learn and participate, you're going to have a really great time because everyone feels that way. I feel so proud to be part of this place and this environment and grateful for all the support that we've had."