CU physicist wins $625,000 ‘genius grant’
All admirable and desirable goals, right?
But to achieve them by manipulating atoms, it would take a genius.
Enter theoretical physicist Ana Maria Rey.
That type of work has earned Rey a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, a prize commonly known as the “genius grant.”
Rey, 36, is a fellow of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, a collaboration between the University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She also is an assistant research professor in the CU-Boulder physics department, teaching undergraduate and graduate classes.
Rey is the eighth CU-Boulder faculty member to win the award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago, as well as the fourth physics faculty member and third JILA fellow. Rey was one of 24 recipients of the 2013 “no-strings attached” funding. She will receive $625,000 paid out over five years.
“It is a great honor for me to be a MacArthur fellow and to receive such great recognition of my work,” Rey said in a CU press statement. “I want to thank JILA, NIST, CU-Boulder and the outstanding group of colleagues, collaborators and students who have allowed and helped me to accomplish the research I have done.”
The MacArthur Foundation selection committee cited Rey as an “atomic physicist advancing our ability to simulate, manipulate, and control novel states of matter through fundamental conceptual research on ultra-cold atoms.”
The crux of her work, Rey said, is that “we try to use atoms to simulate the behavior of electrons by trapping them in light.” That trap, she said, is an “optical lattice,” a series of shallow wells constructed of laser light. The atoms are made super-cold to slow them down so they’re easier to work with. Inside the lattice, the atoms are made to behave similarly to electrons in a solid crystal structure. An optical lattice is highly controllable, letting Rey explore a whole range of phenomena that would be nearly impossible to study in a solid crystal system, the properties of which are difficult to change.
Ultimately, Rey hopes her research will lead to the ability to engineer materials with unique characteristics such as superfluids — liquids that appear to move without regard for gravity or surface tension — and quantum magnets, individual atoms that act like tiny bar magnets.
She said her uses for the grant money may include expanding her research, hiring more staff and buying better computers.
Rey began studying physics at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, where she received a bachelor of science degree in 1999. She came to the United States to continue her studies, earning a doctorate in physics from the University of Maryland-College Park in 2004.
Before coming to JILA in 2008, Rey was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a postdoctoral researcher at NIST in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
“Everyone at JILA is extremely proud of Ana Maria Rey’s accomplishments and wholeheartedly congratulate her for this prestigious MacArthur Fellowship,” said JILA chairman Murray Holland, in the CU press statement. “She has an incredibly quick mind for physics and is one of the truly creative and ingenious scientists of her time, while also being a wonderful teacher and mentor.”
Rey mentors a large group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, one of whom, Michael Foss-Feig, won the 2013 Best Thesis Award of the American Physical Society’s Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics. Rey won the same award in 2005 as a graduate student at the University of Maryland.
In another September honor, the American Physical Society named Rey winner of the 2014 Maria Goeppert Mayer Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements by a woman physicist in her early career.
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