This article is published in the May 2023 issue.

CRA-E Research Highlight: Undergrad talks about mentorship and Quantum research

Jay ZouJay Zou, Physics and Astronomy, Integrated Science Program, combined M.S. in Electrical Engineering, Northwestern University. 

This Q&A highlight features Jay Zou, an Honorable Mention in the 2022 CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researchers award program. Jay is a senior in a combined B.A. and M.S. program at Northwestern University. He recently finished a term at Apple and is now working as a visiting researcher at Stanford University. He will be returning to Apple this summer as a camera architecture intern, and then beginning his PhD in Applied Physics at Yale University in the fall, focusing on unconventional computing architecture and quantum nonlinear optics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you discover research and what led you to pursue it?

In high school, I attended the Summer Science Program (SSP) at the University of Colorado Boulder. There, I tracked asteroids using research grade telescopes and Python, generating data that I eventually published with the International Astronomical Union. The excitement of sharing my work prompted me to pursue research immediately after arriving at college. There were also external pressures, as my parents lost their jobs during COVID, and as a Canadian international student, I was left with no funds. Working in industry and research labs funded a large part of my degree. I worked in several labs and it was only after trying a wide variety of topics that I stuck with a project for the long term.

What project did you settle on?

I started working with Professor Kovács at Northwestern University in November 2020. We aimed to quantify quantum entanglement using a particular model called the quantum Ising model. Quantum entanglement is, roughly, “an invisible link between distant quantum objects that allows one to instantly affect the other” (Ferrie, 2023). We showed that entanglement can be universally maintained across even large distances in a way that deviates from previous results from simpler quantum models. Our paper was presented at the 2021 Fall Meeting of the APS Prairie Section and the 2023 APS March Meeting, and published in Physics Review B,.

How did you originally get involved in this project?

At Northwestern, if there’s something you’re interested in and you reach out to a faculty member, I’ve found that they will likely at least consider you. Before I joined Professor Kovács’s lab, I was already working in a machine learning lab. However, despite very supportive mentors and extraordinarily interesting research topics, the mentorship did not match what I needed. A friend of mine had worked in Professor Kovács’s lab and had a very positive experience specifically in terms of mentorship and support for undergraduate students. I reached out to Professor Kovács and he gave me the opportunity to work on this project. This experience allowed me to discover what I enjoy and what my needs are, while normalizing that it is okay to move on when the fit is not great.

How have these experiences shaped your professional path?

I was especially impressed with Professor Kovács’s ability to give great mentorship to undergraduates. Everybody in academia does cool research, but how many can actually foster a supportive environment for undergraduates, and further, to those who are historically underrepresented in the field? Inspired by these experiences, I hope to do the same. I have a couple of personal projects that I’m working on with first-year undergrads. One way I support new researchers is by giving them creative freedom.

Can you tell us a bit more about why you think that mentorship work is so important?

Scientific research is unlike any other occupation. Unlike studying for a test, where one would be learning from existing knowledge, research requires first mastering this knowledge and pushing beyond that. This is difficult for most undergraduates, as we still have much to learn, never mind generating new knowledge. It is a completely different process of thinking to become acquainted with.

Successful undergraduates should be fostered in an environment where their contributions, no matter how minute, are valued. Frankly, most labs don’t have the bandwidth as they are focused on research output, rather than education. I am privileged to have a supportive mentor invested in my learning and well-being, and he is one of the most fundamental reasons for my progress and passion toward further research!

What do you feel is the impact of bringing students into research?

Of course, sharing our findings with the scientific community already pushes the progress of human knowledge. Personally, I benefit from being a better problem-solver on a day-to-day basis. Research has allowed me to develop tenacity to persevere through difficult obstacles, and most importantly, it has shown me the lack of resources and initiatives to develop young scientists. The latter has pushed me to actively mentor young undergraduates; seeing them develop as a result of my efforts has been priceless.

Do you have any advice for other students looking to get into research?

Explore the fields that interest you, but keep an open mind to explore; something new might be your next big thing! At the same time, it is okay to drop a project and pursue something else. Give yourself permission to give up your dreams to pursue something you love in the present.

— Edited by Yasra Chandio and Nadia Ady

Jay Zou, in front of the Eiffel Tower, holds a conference badge up, smiling at the camera. “I loved the independence that I was given, which allowed me to grow as a researcher rather than an assistant,” quote by Jay Zou