Shuolong Yang receives prestigious NSF CAREER award

Asst. Prof. Shuolong Yang at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, one of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) most prestigious awards for faculty members beginning their independent careers.

Yang received the award for his proposal on topological superconductors — a type of material that, once developed, could transform the state of quantum computing.

The NSF’s CAREER award supports newly established faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and who will lead advances in their field. Yang will receive nearly $690,000 over a five-year period, helping to provide stable funding for that research.

“I am very honored by this award,” Yang said. “To me, it is a recognition not only of my own work, but also the work and dedication of my team. Moreover, it would not be possible without the unwavering support by PME and the University. This award acknowledges our collective effort to undertake something new and bold: research at the intersection of traditional material physics and quantum information science.”

Blazing trails in superconductor research

Currently, quantum computers use traditional superconductors and must operate at extremely low temperatures, requiring expensive liquid helium refrigerators for storage. This is because modern quantum computers use a unit of quantum information that breaks down (an action known as decoherence) at anything above 1 Kelvin (roughly -457°F).

Topological superconductors would overcome that shortfall by providing a more stable unit of quantum information — Majorana fermions, also known as “angel” particles — which can better resist decoherence at higher temperatures.

Yang hopes to develop topological superconductors FeTeₓSe₁₋ₓ (iron-tellurium-selenium or FTS) ultrathin films. Already, he and his team have developed a suite of advanced tools for manufacturing and analyzing quantum materials at the atomic level, like their multi-resolution photoemission spectroscopy (MRPES) system, and their use of molecular beam epitaxy.

Beyond its implications for quantum computing, Yang’s work may also provide new insights into our fundamental understanding of physics. The angel particle was predicted in the early 21st century, but no lab to date has been able to conclusively verify its existence through experimentation.

Bringing cutting-edge research to the classroom

As part of his CAREER proposal, Yang will also oversee the creation of and reinvestment in several educational and outreach efforts. Many of these initiatives stress the importance of relaying cutting-edge research directly to students and building relationships with the community surrounding UChicago.

Yang will establish Science of Materials, a new course to be included in PME’s materials science curriculum. The course will cover a broad range of material topics, including research surrounding FTS superconductors, which will prepare graduate students for more advanced quantum engineering and quantum materials studies.

Yang will also host Microscopy and Spectroscopy for Transient Electronic-matter Research (MASTER) Summer School, an annual program that will enroll 15-20 undergraduate seniors and new graduate students. The week-long program will feature lectures from UChicago and Argonne National Laboratory leaders, and will provide immersive training in the Yang Lab.

Though not directly funded by the CAREER award, UChicago’s Quantum Quickstart program, which launched in 2021, will benefit greatly from Yang’s work. The program is a one-week accelerated quantum introductory workshop that teaches high school students the basic principles of quantum mechanics, walks them through demo experiments, and holds college admission workshops. Yang is one of the two inaugural professors for the program, along with Asst. Prof. Peter Maurer.

“Materials are the driving force behind future technologies — they fuel frontier science,” Yang said. “These new materials will form the foundations of future technologies and future economies, so it’s critical that we train the next generation of leaders and experts in the field. As a scientist, I believe it’s my duty to provide that education to as many people as I can.”