JILA’s Physics Frontiers (PFC) is Awarded a $25 Million Grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF)

Submitted by kennac on Tue, 09/12/2023 - 11:07 am

A compilation of researchers, research, and outreach led by JILA's PFC 

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The JILA Physics Frontiers Center (PFC), an NSF-funded science center within JILA (a world-leading physics research institute), has recently been awarded a $25 million grant after a re-competition process. 

This science center brings together 20 researchers across JILA to collaborate to realize precise measurements and cutting-edge manipulations to harness increasingly complex quantum systems. Since its establishment in 2006, the JILA PFC’s dedication to advancing quantum research and educating the next generation of scientists has helped it to stand out as the heart of JILA’s excellence. 

Origins and Foundation:

It was JILA Fellow Carl Lineberger who initially conceived the PFC. Arriving at JILA in 1968 as a postdoctoral researcher for JILA Fellow and founder Lewis Branscomb, Lineberger witnessed many changes happen at JILA throughout its decades of science. In the early 1970s, as Branscomb was looking to leave JILA, Lineberger realized that Branscomb’s departure could lead to funding constraints for JILA. 

“It was really only Lou and me who knew how to get money for JILA at that time, as we both were the only ones with the strongest links to the Department of Defense (DoD),” Lineberger stated, referring to his own service in the military before arriving at JILA. “We figured that the DoD was the best place to look, as this was during the Vietnam War. The state of Colorado was in severe financial trouble, and they could not help JILA, so we had to get money outside of the university. And I knew all the people in defense and the National Science Foundation who were important for funding where no one else did.” 

In the wake of Branscomb’s departure in 1972, Lineberger began thinking about leveraging his network to secure JILA funding. 

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s when Lineberger led the effort to draft the first group grant for many quantum researchers within JILA, as JILA’s astrophysicists had already secured funding. This grant began a new era in research at JILA, allowing scientists to push the boundaries of knowledge and explore uncharted territories in physics. 

After proposing an extensive collaboration between several JILA scientists, the team submitted their application. Then they waited nervously, as group grants were highly unusual during the 1970s, and the scientists weren’t sure if the NSF would accept it. In fact, the NSF funded this initial group grant and would continue to renew JILA’s funding till the early 2000s when the NSF decided to restructure the group grant altogether. 

“It’s tough for the NSF to compare a group grant to an individual scientist’s work,” explained JILA and NIST Fellow Eric Cornell, a Nobel Laureate who served as the PFC Director for over a decade. “You can’t really compare the two applications.” 

The NSF decided to institute a new grant type to overcome this challenge, as other institutes also submitted group applications. In 2001, several PFCs were established with the NSF’s new grant structure. However, it wouldn’t be until 2006 that JILA’s group grant was transformed into an official PFC. “It was 50% luck and 50% opportunity,” added Lineberger. 

The vision behind the PFC was to bring together researchers from diverse backgrounds to collaborate on projects that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. “Carl Lineberger took very seriously the idea that JILA should always be renewing itself,” Cornell added. “What that meant is it shouldn’t always be the same people always running the show.” 

To implement this thought, Lineberger transitioned out of the role as the first PFC Director and passed the torch to Cornell, who became the next director in the mid-2000s. 

Furthering in this spirit, Cornell just recently handed over the torch to current co-directors Ana Maria Rey and Andreas Becker. The co-directors, together with, JILA Fellows  Eric Cornell, Cindy Regal, Jun Ye, and Heather Lewandowski form the executive committee that will lead and manage the Center for the next six years. 

The Structure of the PFC: 

While the PFC includes about 20 JILA researchers, it is led by a much smaller executive committee. “We sometimes call it an oligarchy,” stated Cornell. “As the executive committee decides things by consensus, the Director is not especially important. However, the NSF does need a point of contact for the grant, so the Director does play a role in government relations.” 

Interdisciplinary Collaboration:

One of the distinguishing features of the PFC is its commitment to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration. By bringing together physicists, chemists, biologists, and other scientific experts, the PFC enables a unique environment for innovation and cross-pollination of ideas. The center encourages researchers to step outside their comfort zones and tackle complex scientific challenges from multiple perspectives, leading to breakthrough discoveries that would be difficult to achieve in isolation.

“The JILA PFC, in my point of view, is the spinal cord of JILA,” explained Rey. “The reason is that the Center serves as a connecting tissue among JILA investigators with different but complementary research interests.  We all understand the added value of the Center and are excited about the scientific barriers we can overcome as a team. We are willing to take risks and commit to very challenging problems that have long-term horizons which are only possible by the joint and synergistic capabilities of the investigators.”

Milestones and Breakthroughs:

Over the years, the PFC and JILA’s group grant before it, have embarked on numerous research projects that have pushed the boundaries of physics. From exploring the properties of ultracold molecules to developing advanced precision measurement techniques, the PFC has consistently been at the forefront of pioneering research. Researchers at the center have significantly contributed to areas such as quantum information science, atomic and molecular physics, quantum optics, ultrafast science, and condensed matter physics. 

The PFC has achieved several significant milestones and breakthroughs throughout its history. In ultracold physics, JILA Fellows, including Cornell and Carl Wieman, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 for creating the first Bose-Einstein Condensate—a remarkable state of matter with extraordinary properties. This groundbreaking achievement opened up new avenues for exploring quantum phenomena and laid the foundation for subsequent research in ultracold physics.

Another notable milestone came in 2008 when the PFC researchers developed an atomic clock that was accurate to within one second every 300 million years. This achievement revolutionized timekeeping technology and led to advancements in global positioning systems (GPS), telecommunication networks, and fundamental tests of the laws of physics. 

That same year PFC investigators Deborah Jin, Jun Ye, and John Bohn, with input from David Nesbitt, prepared the first high-space-density KRb molecular gas, by combining trapping and cooling methods with frequency comb spectroscopy. This development set the stage for impressive investigations on quantum chemistry and many-body physics which are currently generating even richer and faster worldwide developments. 

The PFC has also made significant strides in quantum information science. In 2017, JILA scientists successfully created a long-lived quantum memory for photons, a crucial step towards developing quantum computers and secure quantum communication networks. These advancements have the potential to revolutionize computing and information processing, opening up a new era of technology.

Furthermore, the PFC helped to push forward many new ideas in the development of ultrafast lasers, a technology used collaboratively in many PFC labs. Most recently, the path towards polarization control of ultrashort laser light pulses over a broad wavelength regime, led by PFC investigators Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn, was supported using PFC funds.

“As the years passed,” Cornell explained, “the amount of money given by the NSF for the PFC got smaller and smaller due to inflation.” However, the slack in funding was taken up by individual grants for each scientist. While this group grant once was a more significant source of JILA’s funding, it has now become less so as other organizations, such as the Department of Energy, fund JILA.

“While the money is useful, the PFC has become greater than the sum of its parts,” Cornell stated. “It’s much more of a way to keep us thinking about research collaborations and to wish each other well in our projects. It’s about making it a place that good students want to come to and good staff wants to stay at.”  

For Rey and Becker, the feeling is similar. “We are nevertheless excited and proud to report that in this re-competition, in contrast to prior ones, NSF provides an increase of the JILA PFC budget,” said Rey. “This is exciting and will allow us to attract an even  larger poll of fantastic and productive students and postdocs and undertake broader outreach activities that will benefit our community.”  

The PFC’s Influence on the JILA Community

When examining how the PFC has impacted JILA’s community and culture, JILA’s Chief Operations Officer Beth Kroger agreed with Cornell. “The NSF PFC funding enables JILA to provide critical infrastructure in support of the transformational research done at JILA,” she stated. “A key component of JILA’s infrastructure is the JILA Shops which include Scientific Instrument Design/Fabrication, Electronics Design/Fabrication and Computing, as well user facilities such as our Metrology Lab, Clean Room, and student workshops.  The JILA Shops are instrumental in advancing research and providing mentoring and hands-on applied learning for scientists-in-training.  This is just one example of the impact of the PFC.” 

Educating Future Leaders 

The PFC's contributions to the field of physics extend beyond groundbreaking discoveries. It has nurtured generations of scientists, providing an environment fostering creativity, collaboration, and scientific excellence. The center has trained numerous graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to make a lasting impact in their respective fields. 

“During the next PFC grant period we plan to initiate new training and mentoring programs at JILA which should further help our graduate students and postdocs in preparing them for their future careers in academia and industry”, said Becker. 

Furthermore, a key part of the PFC has been its outreach program, PISEC, or “Partnerships for Informal Science Education in the Community”. A semester-long afterschool program where CU volunteers work with K-12 students on inquiry-based physics experiments. It is mainly targeted to students from underrepresented groups in STEM: primarily Hispanic/Latinx with low income. The goal is to cultivate in the students involved an interest in science, and facilitate pathways into STEM degrees. 

PISEC is a very important part of the JILA-PFC.  Jessica Hoehn is the current full-time PFC director for public engagement. She in collaboration with executive member Heather Lewandowski and Eric Cornell are envisioning exciting new directions in which the PISEC can further expand and become even better during this funding period.  

Thanks to the $25 million grant awarded to JILA’s PFC, its vision and ongoing projects can continue to push the boundaries of quantum science and influence JILA’s culture, community, students, and postdoctoral researchers.   

Written by Kenna Hughes-Castleberry, JILA Science Communicator