Quantum and poetry: Alexandra Boltasseva
Alexandra Boltasseva is the Ron and Dotty Garvin Tonjes Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University, working in the areas of optics, quantum photonics, machine learning, and nanotechnology. In April 2022, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, one of three people selected in the field of engineering. Purdue Engineering Review recently sat down with her for a chat.
What does the Guggenheim award mean to you?
I am very humbled and tremendously honored to receive the fellowship. I know that there are so many groups doing remarkable, groundbreaking research in many important areas of engineering! I see this honor first and foremost as a recognition of the importance of the new, emerging direction that my team is undertaking. To me, it recognizes the entire nanophotonics team at Purdue — my close collaborators, students, and postdocs — that always inspires others to look ahead and think out of the box. The Guggenheim Fellowship honors my proposal to merge the revolutions in quantum and artificial intelligence (AI). It means we should never stop wondering, “What’s next?”
You were selected for your topic, “Empowering Quantum Nanophotonics with Machine Learning: Towards Quantum On-Chip Meta-Devices.” Translation?
It’s about the rising science and technology revolutions we are witnessing in quantum information science and technology (QIST) and in AI. The proposed effort will explore how machine learning algorithms and AI at large could transform one very critical area of QIST that deals with using quantum states of light. This could enable record-breaking functional capabilities, such as ultra-sensitive sensors, on-chip quantum circuitry for secure quantum communication, and photonic quantum computing.
What was your youth like? What kindled your love of science and engineering?
I was born in Kanash, a small town in Russia on the Southern Route of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway. I have always been fascinated by technology and devices, but the truth is that I have always been enthralled by a much simpler thing: the world around me. As a child, I remember noticing every little flower or bug, and talking about what I saw with my grandmother, with whom I was very close. During our long hikes and mushroom picking, my dad and I would talk about everything. His stories always fascinated me. While cutting thick, bright-orange chanterelle stems, we talked about the Big Bang, remote galaxies, planets that might be similar to Earth, black holes, and red dwarfs. As every child, I also loved to come to my parents’ work. Both engineers, my parents worked for railway-related organizations. My mom has a degree in applied mathematics, and was on the team that installed the very first computer at the local train-car repair plant. I still remember those rectangular computer cards with rows of numbers on them — I drew on them, used them for crafts when they became all holey. My dad was the head of a small radio laboratory at the local railway unit that controlled train communication lines between the two nearest big cities, Nizhnyi Novgorod and Kazan. At his lab, I loved playing with colorful resistors, and I wondered what they actually do while I read Rudolf Svoren’s book, Electronics: Step by Step. When I look back, I realize how lucky I am to have grown up in an atmosphere where curiosity and books were indisputable priorities.
Any thoughts to share about being a woman in a STEM discipline?
In middle school, I began to participate in and win Physics Olympics in our Chuvash Republic. Being a girl meant always being outnumbered at physics competitions. I never asked myself whether I should do it — I just joined in. I do not think I ever felt out of place in the male-dominated college or research community. It was not about being female. It was about being insecure (though I admit these are connected). During the earlier stages of my career, I had hard times convincing myself that I was suited for academic work, and not just taking the place of someone else who would be better than I. In my “downs,” I wanted to quit science and open a flower shop. Once, during my postdoc times, when I felt particularly blue and seriously doubted whether I should stay in academia, I talked to my former PhD advisor, a very well-known professor. I said that I am not good enough at what I do, that I have so many doubts. And he replied, “Same here — I am still in doubt whether I am doing what I am good at.” He added that only ignorant people would ever think they are great at something. Having doubts, and accepting that you do not know everything, is what motivates people to learn and explore. I am still learning to believe in myself. I realize how much I do not know or cannot achieve. But the biggest reward is to share what I do know and feel passionate about.
What’s the culture like at Purdue College of Engineering?
I have worked at and visited many universities during my career. What makes Purdue and our college unique is the level of collegiality, which promotes collaborations (cross-, inter- and multidisciplinary work) and serves as a remarkable source of inspiration. I love my colleagues; they support, promote, help and encourage one another, and they celebrate others’ success as their own. That’s what makes us strong, and pushes the boundaries of fields so we go “beyond.” Merging the virtual and physical worlds is one example of what our college is pushing toward.
What’s your philosophy of teaching?
It’s about igniting excitement, and the desire to learn more. I seek to be a role model to inspire and challenge. All the students and postdocs on our photonics team know that we want to change the world. As my dear husband and colleague Vlad Shalaev says, “If we do not aim that our work will one day go into textbooks, we are not interested in such research.” Aim high, break boundaries, strive for the very best. Do not settle for incremental work.
Is there one big question in particular that you would like to answer in your intellectual journey?
It would have to do with the creativity of AI. Could AI help us to uncover new physics, and new fundamental effects? If AI could create something beyond what humans can imagine, would we even be able to grasp and understand it?
Where are we headed in the convergence of nano and quantum engineering and AI?
Engineers will be working together with machines to discover and design new fundamental effects, new materials, and novel devices for real-life applications.
Any words of advice to young people with an interest in engineering?
Dream. Dream big. Then engineer to make dreams come true. Never stay too narrowly focused, too zoomed into your problem. Keep a horizon open, but do not spread yourself too thin. Become the best of the best in what you do, and at the same time think outside the box. Dare. Break boundaries. Interact with entirely different professionals, and get inspired not only by science and technology but also by art and humanities.
Would you be willing to share with readers a little-known passion or fact about yourself?
Poetry. My poems are written in Russian. But I do not “write” them per se. Poems “happen” to me. I would never say that I write poetry; poems just descend onto me, or occur. And often at “inappropriate” times — when I am rushing to catch my plane, suffering pain, or fighting insomnia, when words and lines torture me, swirling in my head until I get up and write them down. I never could “sit down and write a poem.” Poetry is just part of my life — the same as strong emotions, such as joy or despair, or a rainy day.