With NSF Grant, a New Ph.D. Training Program in Quantum Materials

With a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Yale is creating an interdisciplinary Ph.D. training program in the area of quantum materials science and engineering.

The grant, entitled "NRT-QL: Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Quantum Materials Science and Engineering," is made through the NSF's Research Traineeship (NRT) program. It is one of 22 that the NSF announced on Wednesday.

Yale's Ph.D. training program aims to prepare trainees for careers in the field of quantum materials science and engineering. By providing an interdisciplinary set of curriculum requirements, professional skills training, and cutting-edge research activities, the NRT will build the infrastructure and organization needed to create a Ph.D. degree program in Materials Science.

"Our vision is that this NRT program will, on a time scale of several years, lead to a Ph.D.-granting program in Materials Science at Yale whose output will be a competitive and diverse set of Ph.D. graduates," said Sohrab Ismail-Beigi, principal investigator for the grant, and the Strathcona Professor of Applied Physics, Physics, & Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science. "But you can't start such a program on day one, so we will begin with a certificate program that will allow us to start offering the right courses, develop collaborative research directions, and build a Ph.D. student cohort."

Ismail-Beigi and co-principal investigator Corey O'Hern noted that the program is being established at a time when interest in quantum materials is rapidly growing. Harnessing and engineering the useful properties of materials has been a recurrent theme in the history of human advancement from mastering metallurgy in the Bronze Age to the creation of semiconductor devices in today's digital society. Quantum materials, which are materials where quantum mechanical effects are critical to their useful properties, have played an important part in this technological progress, and are poised to do so even more. For example, there is growing interest and excitement about quantum computers, as well as both government and industry funding of research and development in the quantum sciences.

Yale's NRT program, which will emphasize recruiting students who are under-represented in STEM, will train more than 30 Ph.D. students. These include 17 funded trainees, from Applied Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, and Physics. Trainees will become experts in creating, using, and understanding quantum materials, while gaining firsthand knowledge and developing skills in team building, science communication, outreach, teaching, and mentoring. All trainees are also eligible to carry out summer internships at Yale NRT partner companies and national laboratories.

The main research focus is on quantum materials in the form of crystalline nanowires: synergistic research on synthesis, characterization, theoretical and computational modeling, and data mining and machine learning. This will allow NRT researchers to understand and improve the properties of these materials, while training students to tackle cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research questions. While this NRT program focuses specifically on quantum materials, it provides a blueprint for similar efforts in other areas of Materials Science at Yale.

The NSF awarded a total of $63 million across the U.S. for the NRT program this year. The program is designed to create a new generation of STEM talent that reflects the diversity of the nation's communities and is prepared to develop innovative solutions to future challenges. Areas of study include artificial intelligence, climate resiliency, quantum materials, and STEM entrepreneurship. This is the first NRT award that Yale has received.

This year, the NSF NRT solicitation focused on data science and quantum information. Yale's program combines both fields. As a certificate program, candidates must apply to a Ph.D. degree-granting program at Yale and satisfy the course and skills training requirements for the certificate, while also completing the requirements for their Ph.D. program. The current departmental partners are Applied Physics, Physics, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Chemistry, and Computer Science.

"One of the novel things about the program is that every student in the program, regardless of their home department, is exposed to data science," said O'Hern, professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, physics, & applied physics. "There is one required course and several electives in machine learning that are applicable to materials science." Among the grant's senior personnel is Prof. Smita Krishnaswami, a data scientist with a joint appointment in computer science and genetics at Yale's School of Medicine. Other senior personnel are Profs. Charles Ahn, Diana Qiu, Jan Schroers, Udo Schwarz, and Cong Su as well as Dr. Jennifer Claydon.

There are five required courses in the program, including courses in quantum mechanics, data science, and solid state physics. O'Hern and Ismail-Beigi noted that knowledge of machine learning and data science will enable trainees to enter a new, evolving, and important area of scientific inquiry and gain technical skills for their future careers.

Students in the program will also be required to maintain a communications portfolio, which will include both submissions of scientific articles, as well as writing for general audiences, such as newspaper articles, and oral presentations. The program will feature workshops dedicated to training students in science communication to a wide range of audiences.

Prospective graduate students interested in the certificate and program can indicate their interest in their graduate school applications starting in the fall of 2023.