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Extending Our Heritage of Scientific Exploration & Innovation

Quantum Physics Lab

Last fall, news from a laboratory in Switzerland rocked the quantum physics world and stirred the imaginings of a retired physics professor at his home 4,600 miles away.

Physicists at the University of Geneva had successfully teleported the quantum state of a photon 25 kilometers via optical fiber. According to science news agency, the effort “pulverized” the previous ten-year record of six kilometers.

Hugh SiefkenHugh Siefken followed the spectacular achievement with eager interest from his home in south central Illinois. He knew that just two years earlier, physicists had set a world record for free space teleportation – 143 kilometers (89 miles) between two of the Canary Islands, roughly the distance from Earth to its low-orbiting satellites. That feat opened the door to satellite-based quantum communication.

News stories like these intrigue Siefken in part because they matter to happenings in his neighborhood.

Siefken lives a few blocks from picturesque Greenville College, where he taught physics for 35 years. Home to 1,000 residential students, the campus is also home to a new quantum information laboratory. There, under the guidance of Dr. Hyung Choi, student researchers performed a single photon interferometry last summer. They have since worked on a cutting-edge quantum entanglement swapping experiment and developing quantum cryptography techniques.

Their work, against the backdrop of news from Switzerland and the Canary Islands, tells Siefken that another exciting chapter is about to unfold in a story that never fails to grab his attention – the “real time” narrative of students at a college with modest means engaged in top flight research that rivals the research conducted at large universities with deep pockets.

The chapter in process is as much about generations-strong commitment to hands-on learning as it is about today’s students exploring the emerging science of quantum information, a.k.a. the “science of the very small.”

In October, Siefken leaned forward on the edge of his seat in a conference room on campus where alumni had just learned about opportunities the new lab afforded.

“Dr. Choi’s work with students is cutting-edge,” he enthused, “right here, right now!” 

Here's to the Hero

Ralph Miller“Right here, right now” may never have happened if Ralph Miller did not leave his teaching position at Greenville College more than 60 years ago to pursue his doctorate at Syracuse University.

Ever a proponent of working side-by-side with students in research, Miller chose Syracuse U because the advisor who would oversee his work was sympathetic to the idea of Miller’s research continuing after he completed his degree.

Returning to Greenville with his Ph.D. in hand, Miller secured grants from the National Science Foundation that enabled him to engage students in research. Together, students and professor investigated ways to grow the special crystals needed for light meters in cameras. Miller’s continual pursuit of funding over the years generated tens of thousands of dollars that sustained the work.

“Though the research took considerable time beyond his normal teaching load,” recounts Siefken, “it soon became clear that it provided many students with a new focus that impacted their coursework.”

For some students, the research initiated career paths that led to immediate employment after graduation; for others, it paved the way for admission to graduate school. For the department, the research fed a vision of expanded hands-on opportunities for young physicists. 

Glass Blowing and Star Wars

Harry TomaschkeMiller’s research received a boost when Harry Tomaschke joined the faculty in 1964. Tomaschke’s experience in electronics and glassblowing soon opened doors for students to explore other areas as well.  

“The east end of the ground floor of Hogue Hall was short of suitable space,” recalls Siefken, “but the two dedicated faculty knew what constituted good work in science and what was needed to prepare students.” The pair agreed that hands-on learning was key.

Research opportunities for students expanded again with Siefken’s arrival in 1969. Experienced in operating accelerators to produce nuclear reactions, Siefken oversaw the construction on campus of what would become the only ion accelerator in Illinois south of Urbana. A grant from Research Corporation funded the project.

The accelerator took 15 years to build. It integrated an ion source that Siefken had previously helped design for McDonnell Douglas Astronautics under the Reagan-era’s Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly called the “Star Wars” program. Students used the accelerator as a research tool to investigate solids and simulate solar effects on materials. Visiting professors and students from other institutions also used the facility. 

The Science of Quantum Information

In the College’s new quantum information lab, students learn how particles can be made to do something wonderful and strange. Their guide, Dr. Hyung Choi, explains the science as state-of-the-art and poised to reshape the future of science and technology. Scientists in the field have already achieved quantum teleportation and created unbreakable codes via quantum cryptography. Some have started to build quantum computers with potential for far more power than current electronic-based computers.

When Siefken visits campus now, he sees more than an exciting future for students who share his thrill over stunning strides in teleportation and new records that “pulverize” old ones. He sees the fruits of past professors who kept the flame of hands-on research burning for students.

Hyung Choi“Dr. Hyung Choi continues the tradition of providing first class instruction in the classroom coupled with a state-of-the-art research program in quantum information,” says Siefken. “The resulting education is strong in stature.”

It’s a strength born, not from deep pockets, but from deep commitment to ideals about how students learn.

To extend GC’s legacy of student research, give online here and designate your gift to The Catalyst Fund. 

Related articles:

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GC Student and Faculty Research Published in The Journal of Chemical Education

A Fourth, Fruitful Summer of Science Research

This story was published on April 10, 2015

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