Quantum Q&A With Max Planck-NYC Fellows Carolin Gold and Xiong Huang

Columbia welcomes its first participants in the postdoctoral program to New York this year. Here, they discuss their careers and interests in quantum phenomena in two-dimensional materials. 

Ellen Neff
June 10, 2022

In fall 2019, Columbia University joined the Flatiron Institute and the Max Planck Society to form the Max Planck-NYC Center for Nonequilibrium Quantum Phenomena. The center brings together unique expertise from researchers at its partner institutes in theoretical and experimental quantum mechanics. The goal is to discover how to control unique quantum properties that may prove useful in emerging technological applications, including quantum computers, sensors, and other devices yet to be imagined. 

Starting this year, the center is excited to welcome its first postdoctoral fellows, Carolin Gold and Xiong Huang, to Columbia. Carolin Gold joined Cory Dean’s lab in February from ETH Zurich, and Xiong Huang is arriving this summer from the University of California-Riverside to work with Abhay Pasupathy’s lab

Here, these inaugural fellows share their paths to quantum science and their goals for their fellowships.

What sparked your interest in physics?

XH: I grew up in China reading the book series, One Hundred Thousand Whys. Questions like, “Why is the earth round?” and “Why does water become ice?” I was always amazed by those questions, and I really wanted to explore things for myself. In college, I chose to study physics because it can give you clear answers. You make predictions based on theoretical knowledge and then expand what we know about some phenomena. 

CG: I was a curious kid with lots of different interests. I played four different instruments— piano, organ, clarinet, and violin—and always really enjoyed math and physics growing up. Those became a passion that I decided to pursue in high school and as I entered college.

What was your path to Columbia?

CG: I completed my undergraduate degree and PhD at ETH Zurich, which provided me with a very strong theoretical foundation. I was able to do exchanges in both Sweden and the U.S. (MIT), and I started studying 2D materials, including graphene. Columbia is one of the places to be for that research. It’s an extraordinary environment to combine a lot of different research interests. 

XH: As an undergraduate, I never thought about studying abroad, but while I was completing my graduate studies I was able to visit the University of Houston. Preparing for the required language exams was a challenge, but I passed and enrolled in a PhD program with Yongtau Cui at U.C. Riverside. I’ve been studying low-temperature physics using scanning microscopes, which is a focus of Abhay Pasupathy’s research. He specializes in looking beneath the surface of materials, so I’m excited to learn from him. 

What will you be working on while you are here?

XH: I’ll continue imaging different 2D materials. I’m particularly interested in studying strong correlation effects in moiré materials, which are made from atom-thin layers of different materials that have been stacked and twisted to produce unique quantum effects, like superconductivity. 

CG: I’ll be studying electronic transport and optical properties in moiré materials. They are a fairly new but very cool platform. Before, you often had to look at different materials to study different effects but now, you can fine-tune moiré materials to study a variety of fascinating physical properties all in the same material or even device. 

Have you had a eureka moment in your career so far?

CG: For me, it’s been a lot of small moments, rather than one big one where everything suddenly fell into place. Science is a lot of tiny steps. You are always building on what others did before you, and you are always learning and developing and collaborating. Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s all about your community.

XH: I’ll never forget “seeing” my first atoms. Scanning probe microscopes “feel” the surface of a material, like using your finger to feel a texture that you can’t otherwise see. I remember scanning my first crystal sample and then seeing those atoms one by one—that was an impressive moment.

Any advice for others interested in pursuing quantum science?

CG: No one size fits all. It’s important that you find what works for you and remember that there are different paths to science.

XH: The most important thing is to keep trying. There are so many opportunities in so many different areas of research—you’ll find the area where you can succeed. Also, stay in touch with your advisors and group members. Their experiences will help you keep moving forward on your own research questions.