Dr. Lea Ferreira dos Santos Receives Two Major Awards

Dr. Lea Ferreira dos SantosDr. Lea Ferreira dos Santos, professor of physics and chair of the physics department at Stern College for Women, has received two major awards that will significantly help her advance the computational study of many-body quantum systems.

On Dec. 10, 2019, the National Science Foundation (NSF) notified Dr. Santos that she would receive $400,000 to study “Nonequilibrium Quantum Matter: Timescales and Self-Averaging.” The grant is, in fact, a collaboration between the NSF and the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), an arrangement whereby U.S. researchers may receive funding from the NSF and Israeli researchers may receive funding from the BSF. The memorandum of understanding between the two organizations helps reduce some of the current barriers to working internationally. Using a lead agency model, U.S. and Israeli researchers can submit a single collaborative proposal that will undergo a single review process at NSF, which will be the lead agency.

“This collaboration between a principal investigator (PI) funded by the NSF and a PI funded by the BSF,” noted Dr. Santos, “will allow for the combination of complementary skills and will significantly expand the NSF-PI’s group size and computer resources.” A further benefit of the collaboration will be that “the undergraduate students of Yeshiva University will have the opportunity to experience research at a PhD-granting institution in Israel.”

Just what is it that Dr. Santos will be doing with the NSF grant? Here is a brief non-technical description of what her work will entail:

This award supports computational and theoretical studies of the evolution of systems that have many interacting particles and which are described by quantum mechanics. These so-called many-body quantum systems are so complex that it is often impossible to describe their evolution analytically, which forces us to resort to numerical methods. But even numerically, the problem is challenging. Because the number of states that need to be considered grows exponentially with system size, existing computers soon run out of memory. As a result, despite being ubiquitous, these systems are still little understood.

Understanding the properties of many-body quantum systems out of equilibrium is a fundamental problem of great interest to a wide range of fields, from atomic, molecular, and condensed matter physics to quantum information and cosmology. These studies may also lead to practical applications. For example:

  • One may discover new phases of matter that only appear in quantum systems out of equilibrium. New phases of matter are tightly connected with the development of new materials needed in emerging technologies and in new electronic and spintronic devices.
  • The models that we employ are analogous to those used in the field of quantum computing. Therefore, advancing our understanding of many-body quantum systems can lead to revolutionary developments in both computational capabilities and encryption technologies.

The educational and outreach goals of this project are:

  • To train a postdoctoral researcher, who will be exposed to all parts of the project and will be assisted in the necessary steps for future employment.
  • To foster the participation of women in STEM fields by engaging female undergraduate students in the principal investigator (PI)’s research projects.
  • To motivate young women to study physics by giving presentations about what can be done with a degree in physics in open houses and visits to high schools for girls.
  • To modernize the curriculum at Stern College for Women by integrating computational activities into the undergraduate science courses.
  • To contribute to the integration of teaching and research at other institutions by posting online the computer codes and tutorials developed for the project.

Dr. Santos also received notice that she had been selected as a Simons Fellows in Theoretical Physics by the Simons Foundation, an organization dedicated to “advancing the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences.” The selection includes a $100,000 grant to support “sabbatical research leaves from classroom teaching and administrative obligations” and is based on “the applicant’s scientific accomplishments in the five-year period preceding the application and on the potential scientific impact of the work to be done during the leave period.”

(Read about the scope and breadth of her work during the past five years.)

Dr. Santos’ project will be “Nonequilibrium Quantum Dynamics of Many-Body Systems,” and as she explained it, the grant will give her the time and space to expand her current program of studying nonequilibrium quantum dynamics by allowing her to “initiate a new research line, develop computer codes, strengthen current collaborations and establish new ones, and write proposals.”

Of course, Dr. Santos is thrilled by these awards, not only for the way they help her advance her career but also for the positive notice they bring to Yeshiva University. “I’m especially pleased,” she noted, “that the NSF grant will help my undergraduate students at Stern College work with leaders in the field and across the two countries. The Simons fellowship is a very prestigious award, and I’m humbled by being included in the exceptional company of the past awardees.”

Both Dr. Selma Botman, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and Dr. Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, were both thrilled to hear the news. “We are so very, very proud of her achievements,” said Dr. Bacon, “as well as of this recognition of her as an exceptional scientist and scholar.”