Stanford quantum physicist and sociologist awarded MacArthur ‘genius’ grants

Tue, 10/06/2020

Monika Schleier-Smith and Forrest Stuart have been named 2020 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (Image credit: Courtesy of Forrest Stuart and Dawn Harmer/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Stanford quantum physicist Monika Schleier-Smith and sociologist Forrest Stuart have been named 2020 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The fellowships, also referred to as “genius grants,” recognize individuals “who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Fellows receive $625,000 stipends that come with no conditions in order to “pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.” Schleier-Smith and Stuart are among 21 recipients of the prestigious fellowship this year. 

“We’re delighted that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized two outstanding Stanford scholars,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “Monika Schleier-Smith and Forrest Stuart conduct research in different disciplines using very different methods, but both exemplify creativity in their work and demonstrate what is possible when you bring fresh perspectives to thorny problems. We are all tremendously proud of their achievements, and I can’t wait to see where their research takes them.”

Receiving the news

Before joining the Stanford faculty in 2019, Stuart was at the University of Chicago, where he taught and studied gang culture in the city’s South Side neighborhood, an area notorious for its street violence and high murder rate. As the director of an afterschool youth violence prevention program, Stuart got to know many of the gang-affiliated youth and remained in touch with many of them even after he moved away.

“Over the last few months, as COVID, uprisings, and violence have spiked in Chicago, many of the young men from my research and my work in Chicago have been going through incredibly difficult times,” said Stuart, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S).

So when an unknown number with a Chicago area code appeared on Stuart’s phone, Stuart panicked, thinking one of his former mentees might need his help. When the caller instead identified themselves as being from the MacArthur Foundation, which is headquartered in Chicago, Stuart was so startled he asked them to call him back. “We spoke about 5 minutes later, and I received the amazing news,” he said. 

When the MacArthur Foundation contacted Schleier-Smith, she was working at home. “I had just signed in to a video conference but the other person wasn’t there yet. So, when the caller from the MacArthur Foundation asked whether I was in a private place, I thought, ‘If I mute myself, I guess I am,’ ” said Schleier-Smith, an associate professor of physics in H&S. “When they told me I won the grant, I was very surprised and immediately felt very honored.”

Entangled particles

Schleier-Smith’s research specialty is many-particle quantum systems. In general, these systems are made of particles, such as atoms, electrons and photons, which are so small that their behaviors cannot be accurately described by classical – or Newtonian – physics. These systems exhibit a provocative phenomenon not seen in the macroscopic world known as quantum entanglement, a special connection between particles that Albert Einstein once described as “spooky action at a distance.” A greater understanding of many-particle quantum systems would expand our foundational knowledge of physics and could substantially enhance many technologies, particularly those that rely on computation.

In her lab, Schleier-Smith builds experimental set-ups to generate and control interactions between laser-cooled atoms. Controlling these interactions can serve as a mechanism for generating entanglement. The Schleier-Smith group is also developing methods for observing how the structure of interactions governs the flow of quantum information and the spreading of entanglement. A particular focus of Schleier-Smith’s work has been on engineering non-local interactions to efficiently generate entanglement, which Schleier-Smith likens to interacting over a web conferencing system to efficiently spread ideas among distant collaborators. Schleier-Smith’s work could lay the groundwork for new computational paradigms, increase the precision of sensing and measurement, and help resolve the mystery of what happens to information that falls into a black hole.

“Monika has conducted groundbreaking research on assembling systems of atoms using light to better understand and control their interactions and quantum properties,” said Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Her work pushes beyond the ‘standard quantum limit,’ the highest degree of precision we can achieve with independent, uncorrelated atoms. It’s an exciting frontier with respect to measurement with implications for everything from GPS to continental drift.”

In reflecting on the MacArthur grant, Schleier-Smith credits the importance of creativity and originality in her work. A crucial element to her creative process is thinking deeply and over a long period of time about a single problem that others have ignored, and discussing it with others. 

“Creativity is often viewed as something that comes entirely from within, but it’s so important to be in a stimulating environment that gives opportunities for noticing patterns or connections between what might seem to be disparate areas of research,” said Schleier-Smith. “I’ve been very fortunate to have that kind of environment at Stanford, where I can bounce ideas off of students and colleagues and make those ideas better.”

Problems Schleier-Smith is currently tackling include optically programming the interactions between cold atoms and accelerating the rate at which entanglement forms – all with an eye toward figuring out how to harness quantum interactions as a resource for computation or enhanced sensing. She is unsure how she will use the MacArthur Grant but said that if she could buy anything, it would be “more time to invest in ideas – both developing them and working with my research group to bring them to fruition in the lab.”

Despite good intentions

The MacArthur Fellowship comes at a pivotal moment in Stuart’s research. His scholarship has broadly examined the effects of urban poverty, violence and resilience, but he says he now has an opportunity to conduct an “outside-the-box ethnographic project on gun violence, trauma and loss” by collaborating with photojournalists and social workers to develop a new research approach that is both an investigation and an intervention into the trauma associated with life in disadvantaged, violent communities. 

“This fellowship opens the door for me to enlist community residents as active members of the research process,” said Stuart, who is also director of the Stanford Ethnography Lab.

“Professor Forrest Stuart has made significant contributions to the ethnographic study of race, poverty, and inequality in the U.S., including the ways in which local communities and individuals are misperceived and misjudged and, thereby, unfairly criminalized and punished,” said Satz, the dean of H&S. “His award-winning work combines academic scholarship with firsthand, immersive research in affected communities, studying individuals and neighborhoods to understand their lives from their own perspectives. Forrest shows how power and bias are used against those who are often the most powerless in our society.”

Stuart has written two books based on his experiences. Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row details the five years Stuart spent working in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district, a neighborhood known for extreme poverty and homelessness. It is also known for its zero-tolerance policing: just sitting on the street can sometimes result in a $200 citation or a few nights in jail.  

Stuart wanted to find out what obstacles people faced in their daily lives. He concluded that, more often than not, it was the police – who questioned Stuart 14 times in the first year he worked there. Through these experiences, Stuart made what he describes as a “counterintuitive” discovery: some of the arrests were made because the police cared deeply about the community. To the law officers, a night in jail guaranteed regular meals, a bed and an opportunity for rehabilitation.  

As Stuart recently explained in an interview with Stanford Magazine, this provocative realization prompts “a more fascinating sociological question, ‘What systems must be in place such that the most well-meaning people end up doing the most damage?’”

Reflecting on his MacArthur fellowship, Stuart emphasized the unique insights that personal narrative can offer social scientists seeking to better understand social problems.

“This award is a wonderful recognition and a reminder, especially to my students, of the importance of social science that prioritizes our efforts to address real-world inequalities,” Stuart said. “It also confirms for me that our personal backgrounds and journeys are assets we do well to embrace in our work, rather than liabilities that we should hide.” 

Stanford quantum physicist and sociologist awarded MacArthur ‘genius’ grants - by Melissa de Witte and Taylor Kubota - Stanford News - October 6th, 2020