Sankar Das Sarma Named Highly Cited Researcher

Sankar Das Sarma has again been included on Clarivate Analytics list of Highly Cited Researchers, a compilation of influential names in science.

Das Sarma is the Richard E. Prange Chair of Physics, the Director of the Condensed Matter Theory Center and a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute

After receiving his Ph.D. from Brown University in 1979—studying under UMD alumnusSankar Das SarmaSankar Das Sarma John Quinn (Ph.D., '58)—Das Sarma joined the UMD faculty in 1982. He was named a Distinguished University Professor in 1995, and in 2008 received the Kirwan Faculty Research Prize for his groundbreaking work in topological quantum computing.

In 2013, Das Sarma received the CMNS Distinguished Faculty Award in recognition of his stellar career. In 2020, a paper he co-wrote was included in Physical Review B's list of the "milestone" papers published in its first 50 years of existence. 

Das Sarma has been included in all previous listings of highly-cited researchers: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2001.

College Park Professor Chris Monroe also appeared on the list.

Dragt Awarded Robert R. Wilson Prize

The American Physical Society (APS) has honored Professor Emeritus Alex Dragt with the 2023 Robert R. Wilson Prize for Achievement in the Physics of Particle Accelerators. He was cited "for pioneering contributions to the development and application of Lie methods in accelerator physics and nonlinear dynamics," and will receive a $10,000 award.

Dragt studied chemistry and mathematics at Calvin University before earning his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, under Robert Karplus.  After an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study, Dragt joined the Department of Physics as an assistant professJohn Toll and Alex DragtJohn Toll and Alex Dragtor in 1965, and served as department chair from 1975-78.  He led the Dynamical Systems and Accelerator Theory Group, whose work included the computation of charged particle beam transport and the computation of electromagnetic fields and beam-cavity interactions.  He received the University of Maryland Regents' Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1967 and was named a University of Maryland Distinguished Scholar-Teacher in 1984.

Dragt (rear, white shirt) with colleagues in the Center for Superconductivity Research (now QMC).Dragt (rear, white shirt) with colleagues in the Center for Superconductivity Research (now QMC).In 2002, Dragt served as Chair of the Executive Committee of the APS Division of Physics of Beams.  From 1985-1993 he was as an editor of Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena. He was recognized with the 2013 IEEE Particle Accelerator Science and Technology (PAST) award for substantial contributions to the analysis of nonlinear phenomena in accelerator beam optics.

He has had several visiting appointments, including at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques; the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Los Alamos National Laboratory; the SSC Design Center at the Lawrence Berkeley Laborator; and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Dragt is a Fellow of the APS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the IEEE, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Mathematical Society.

APS Wilson prize announcement:  https://aps.org/programs/honors/prizes/prizerecipient.cfm?last_nm=Dragt&first_nm=Alex&year=2023

From Unexpected Opportunity to Game-changing Discovery

In the world of startups, opportunity can come knocking in strange ways. Six years ago, Didier Depireux (Ph.D. ’91, physics) was doing research at the University of Maryland when he was approached by Sam Owen, a young scientist who said he’d developed a device to treat motion sickness. Depireux was skeptical but decided to check it out. 

“Since I get very severe motion sickness, I made a deal with him,” Depireux recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll come over with my car and you can drive me around while I use the device. If I haven’t thrown up after 20 minutes while I’m in the back of the car reading, I’ll join the effort.’”

The two made plans to meet in Washington, D.C., on a muggy July afternoon.  Didier DepireuxDidier Depireux

“So, I go to Georgetown. The windows are down, it’s hot, it’s humid and I’m thinking I will not make it past the first turn,” Depireux explained. “Owen is driving and I’m in the back seat using his device and reading my cellphone. And for the first time in my life—and I’m over 50 years old—I was able to read in the back of a car and not get sick. I thought, ‘I need to join this, this is amazing.’”

Thanks to that strange summer ride-along, Depireux joined Owen in launching a startup called Otolith Labs to address inner ear-related conditions and their often debilitating symptoms. Otolith’s noninvasive vestibular system masking technology—designed for acute treatment of vestibular vertigo—received the FDA’s Breakthrough Device designation and clinical trials are ongoing, with support from investors including AOL founder Jack Davies and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

All of this sets the stage for a major test that could lead to the startup’s ultimate goal—FDA approval as early as next year.

“In July we told the FDA we want to do a large-scale pivotal trial with hundreds of participants,” Depireux explained. “If all goes well, we’ll have a meeting next summer where the FDA will approve us and then the device will become available.”

For Depireux, it’s the latest step on a bigger mission that has guided his career.

Didier DepireuxDidier Depireux“It’s mostly relevance,” he explained. “I would like my life to make a difference, that’s the one thing that keeps me going.”

From philosophy to physics

Depireux was raised in Belgium. A bright, thoughtful boy, he grew up with a strong interest in science and theory, thanks to his father, a physics professor, and his mother, a chemistry teacher.

“I was always very science-y,” Depireux recalled. “Initially, I wanted to become a philosopher and I read this 800-page book—I think it was Kant—and at the end of it I was like, ‘I still don’t know the answer, and I’m not even sure I understand the question anymore.’ That’s when I thought that’s not a good fit for me.”  

Depireux eventually gravitated toward physics. After receiving his B.S. in physics from the University of Liège in Belgium in 1986, he began his graduate work in physics at the University of Maryland, where he focused on string theory and met Distinguished University Professor of Physics Sylvester James Gates Jr., who quickly became a mentor and friend.

“Jim had a huge impact on me. He was a fantastic person to work with and he had so much positive energy,” Depireux said. “I still remember late one night I was working on something, and I was stuck and I wrote to him, and he said, ‘I’ll come over, let’s work this out.’ So we had office hours at 10:30 p.m. just because I couldn’t solve a problem.”

Depireux earned his Ph.D. in 1991 and went on to do postdoctoral work in Quebec, Canada, before returning to College Park in 1994. Inspired by his wife Pamela, who was getting her Ph.D. in neuropharmacology, Depireux took on the challenge of modeling the brain and studying how it processes sound. By 2001, he was also teaching a gross anatomy class at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“I think, to this day, I am the only string theorist who has taught gross anatomy,” he reflected.

From his research on the brain and hearing, Depireux shifted his focus to tinnitus—disruptive ringing in the ears. He explored possible treatments and eventually teamed up with former UMD Bioengineering Professor Benjamin Shapiro who was already working on the drug delivery challenges Depireux was trying to solve.

“I wanted to get drug delivery to the ear but I didn’t know how to do it,” Depireux said. “He had this method with nanoparticles to deliver drugs and I had the target so we started working together.”

In 2013, the two launched Otomagnetics, a startup that has made major strides in developing noninvasive methods to treat inner ear diseases and more.

“We’ve gotten very nice results as far as drug delivery goes and Otomagnetics is still an ongoing concern,” Depireux explained, “But raising money for drug delivery is the real challenge, because to get drug delivery to the ear is going to take hundreds of millions of dollars, and that hasn’t happened yet.”

Going all-in on Otolith

Depireux balanced his time between Otomagnetics, his UMD research and teaching at the School of Medicine until 2016, when he experienced Owen’s experimental motion sickness device for the first time. Depireux saw so much potential with the device that he went all-in on Otolith. 

“You have to have pretty strong resilience to join a startup—I went for a year and a half without a salary or anything,” Depireux explained. “It’s not like we didn’t have money, we just needed all of the money to develop the device, get the patents in, all of the things we had to do.”

Though Otolith started with a motion sickness device, its co-founders hoped to make an even bigger impact by developing a device for vertigo, debilitating dizziness often caused by problems in the inner ear.

And they had a plan.

“For tinnitus or ringing in the ears, some patients get relief from a noise masker—they can still perceive their tinnitus, but the noise masker allows them to ignore the tinnitus,” Depireux explained. “So Sam, my cofounder said, ‘Why don’t we come up with a noise masker for the vestibular system?’”

That’s exactly what they did. Their novel device, worn like a headband, treats vertigo by applying localized mechanical stimulation to the vestibular system through calibrated vibrations. 

Depireux says he never would have made it this far without physics.

“My physics training really helped me,” he explained. “In physics, you have this huge problem and you have to break it down. If it’s intractable, you make it tractable, break it into small, simple things we can understand and then we can solve it.”

Promising results and personal stories

Clinical trials of Otolith’s investigational headband have yielded promising results. In the first of a series of ongoing clinical studies, 87.5% of the 40 participants reported a reduction in their vertigo within five minutes of turning on the device. But for Depireux, it’s the personal stories that are most rewarding.

“Somehow my phone number was listed as an emergency contact on clinicaltrials.gov, which I thought would be for emergencies only,” he said. “I’d have patients calling me in tears, telling me, ‘When my grandkids visit, I can finally bend down and pick them up, and it used to be that just bending down would send me into such vertigo that I would have to go to bed for days.’ Or ‘For the first time in years, I’ve been able to walk around the block.’ That’s what really motivates me.”

It's been Depireux’s goal all along—doing relevant research that changes people’s lives.

“We cannot help 100% of vertigo patients, no device does that,” he reflected. “But if we can help even half of those patients, that’s really my hope.”

Looking back on a career path that’s been anything but predictable, Depireux appreciates every challenge and setback that got him to where he is today.

“Something can feel like a failure when things go wrong, but then later you realize you really learned something from it,” he reflected. “I’m so grateful I was given the opportunity to come to the U.S. and study physics and do research in College Park, do this random walk in my career and finally end up doing something that I feel has given me great meaning in my life.”

Written by Leslie Miller

Diving into UMD’s Quantum Community

In 2021, when Jade LeSchack was a high school senior imagining herself at potential colleges, she was already entranced by physics—quantum physics in particular. After taking high school physics classes and an online course on quantum computing, she wanted to explore the world of physics more fully. 

“I loved that in class we talked about a lot of different topics that were not just mechanics related,” LeSchack said. “We were talking about waves, quantum mechanics a little bit here and there, about sound and things like that. That's where I really found a love for physics. And then taking the Qubit by Qubit online Introduction to Quantum Computing course, that solidified it for me, because I realized you need physics for quantum computing. And I really wanted to dive deeper into physics.”Jade LeSchack and Sondos Quqandi, the UQA Vice President and a UMD physics major, at an informational table for the quantum track of Bitcamp 2021. Image credit: Dhruv SrinivasanJade LeSchack and Sondos Quqandi, the UQA Vice President and a UMD physics major, at an informational table for the quantum track of Bitcamp 2021. Image credit: Dhruv Srinivasan

That desire attracted her to the University of Maryland’s flourishing and top-rated physics program, where an ambitious student can engage in basic research and learn how quantum physics is being harnessed in cutting-edge quantum technologies. UMD encompasses eight centers and institutes dedicated to quantum research, is part of the Mid-Atlantic Quantum Alliance, and is home to the Quantum Startup Foundry. Last year, as a freshman physics major at UMD, LeSchack wasted no time before connecting with faculty, embracing the resources offered by the university and even creating new opportunities for herself and her fellow undergrads in the form of a quantum club.

While LeSchack was still investigating prospective colleges, she noticed Nicole Yunger Halpern, a quantum theorist who is now an adjunct assistant professor of physics at UMD, on the QuICS website. Yunger Halpern was moving to UMD and a position at NIST in the fall of 2021, the same time LeSchack would be starting if she decided to become a UMD student. 

“I wanted to reach out to her to see what her experience has been like,” LeSchack said. “And what has her path been? I wanted to connect with another woman in STEM. And it was great to just talk with her. I had looked at all of her research pages and some of the titles of the papers she published, and I was like, wow, I don't understand any of that. And she said, ‘But you will; you will soon.’ That was nice to hear.”

Yunger Halpern invited LeSchack to sit in on a group meeting to see what her research group was like, which developed into an ongoing arrangement throughout the year. Yunger Halpern provided additional mentorship as the year went on, like walking LeSchack through how she approaches reading an academic paper. 

Jade LeSchack Jade LeSchack "I can best illustrate how self-driven Jade is by sharing that, before she even enrolled at UMD, she decided that she was going to specialize in quantum computing and I was going to be her advisor,” Yunger Halpern said. “One can scarcely stand in the way of such determination! Her passion for physics and leadership have been a delight to engage with throughout the past year."

Once LeSchack decided that UMD was where she wanted to go and before her first semester had even started, she was looking for a way to contribute to the community. As a high school student, she had learned about undergraduate quantum clubs at universities like Stanford and MIT through hackathons—events where people gather to develop computer coding skills through workshops and challenges.

“I enjoy starting things, and then also using those things to teach people about the things that I'm interested in,” LeSchack said. “Since there were models that existed before, I wanted to take up the mantle of starting something at UMD because I thought a quantum club belongs here for the students and that there might be interest.”

She reached out to various people at UMD about her idea for an undergraduate quantum club. She eventually connected with Donna Hammer, the director of Student and Education Services in the Department of Physics, who suggested LeSchack present her vision for a club at the meeting for all the department’s students that happened on the first Wednesday of the semester.

“She said we need to start recruiting people, we need to see the interest and we should get started right away,” LeSchack said. “Donna has been really instrumental in helping sponsor the club and helping me get it off the ground.”

The result was the formation of the Undergraduate Quantum Association (UQA), which helps students learn about and engage with quantum science and technology by hosting events—including quantum hackathons, speaker events and lab tours. LeSchack’s goal is for the club to aid students from a variety of majors.

“I think that what's cool about what UQA can do is that it can pull people from all majors—not just physics—because quantum computing is an intersection between physics and computer science as well as math, and it has applications to even more than that, like bioengineering, chemistry and finance,” LeSchack said. “So those places where the applications are, are where UQA wants to help bring students that are not just physics majors in and say this new field is going to have applications to what you are already interested in, how can you incorporate quantum into what you're doing?”Anthony Munson, Nicole Yunger Halpern and Jade LeSchackAnthony Munson, Nicole Yunger Halpern and Jade LeSchack

In UQA’s first year, one of its main events was giving its members a firsthand look at quantum industry by touring IonQ. IonQ is the first publicly traded quantum computing company, and it grew out of UMD research projects and is based in the UMD Discovery District. The members of UQA got to see the company’s labs and quantum computer and meet with some of the staff.

UQA also participated in organizing the quantum track of the 36-hour Bitcamp hackathon put on by the university. The quantum track covered a broad range of quantum topics, including introducing qubits, the most fundamental pieces of quantum computers; using Qiskit, an open-source software development kit for working with quantum computers; and solving a programming challenge by using simulations to determine the ground state bond length of hydrogen molecules. 

While getting UQA started, LeSchack also made time to get firsthand experience working in a lab. During the annual department research fair in October 2021, LeSchack met Patrick Banner, a UMD physics graduate student. Over the winter break she reached out to him about getting hands-on lab experience. She wanted to try lab work early so she could figure out what type of research she enjoyed and to ensure that she really understood what academic research is in practice. 

She asked Banner about opportunities to contribute to research, and he helped arrange for her to work in the lab run by UMD Physics Adjunct Professor Trey Porto and UMD Physics Professor Steve Rolston, who is also chair of the Department of Physics. Under the guidance of Banner and Deniz Kurdak, another UMD physics graduate student, she worked on an electronics project. Besides developing practical skills working in the lab, she got to see how Porto’s experimental group had a different dynamic from Yunger Halpern’s theoretical group.

After a year of classes, research and lab work, LeSchack is still eager to learn more about physics and quantum computing. She said that UQA plans to arrange more events in the upcoming semesters and do additional lab tours, including possibly returning to IonQ. She also hopes the group will be able to collaborate with the Quantum Coalition—an intercollegiate group of undergraduate quantum computing clubs from several universities.

“I want to make UQA something that lasts longer than just the four years that I'm here,” LeSchack said. “So that starts with engaging all the incoming classes and building a structure that will last a long time.”

Students interested in learning more about UQA may reach out to LeSchack via her email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Story by Bailey Bedford 

Faculty, Staff, Student and Alumni Awards & Notes

We proudly recognize members of our community who recently garnered major honors, began new positions and more.

Faculty and Staff 
 Students
 Alumni
  • John "Yiannis" Antoniades (Ph.D., '83) was named Executive Vice President of Meta Materials.
  • Laird Egan (Ph.D., '21) described hasty preparations for COVID-mandated remote control of an experiment in a JQI podcast.
  • Joe Grochowski (M.S., '10) teaches physics at West Shore Community College in Scottville, Michigan.
  • Alan Henry (B.S., '02) wrote a book, Seen, Heard & Paid.  Henry will give the CMNS Diversity Lecture on Thurs., Nov. 10 at 4 p.m. in 0202 E. St. John Bldg.
  • Scott Kordella (B.S., '81) is the Director of Space Systems at The MITRE Corporation.
  • V. Bram Lillard (M.S., '01, Ph.D., '04) was named director of the Operational Evaluation Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses.
  • Scott Moroch (B.S., '21) received a $250k Hertz Fellowship.
  • Guido Pagano, a former UMD/JQI postdoc, has received a DOE Early Career Award. 
  • Julia Ruth (B.S., '14) was featured in Symmetry magazine.
  • Sylvie Ryckebusch (B.S., '87) was named Chief Business Officer of BioInvent.
  • Pablo Solano ( Ph.D., '17) was named a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar.
Department News
  • The National Science Foundation has awarded an S-STEM grant for Chesapeake Scholars in the Physical Sciences, with Eun-Suk Seo as PI and Carter Hall, Chandra Turpen, Donna Hammer and Jason D. Kahn (chemistry) as co-PIs.
  • IonQ was named one of Time's Most Influential Companies. 
In Memoriam

Alfred George Lieberman (M.S., '72), who spent much of his career at NIST/Gaithersburg, died on June 25.