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A Superposition State

Claire McLellan, 2020 OSA Ambassador, Stanford University, USA

In graduate school at University of California, Santa Barbara, USA (UCSB), I spent years carefully engineering quantum sensors. Extending the coherence time of a superposition of the sensor’s states revealed more about its environment and the surrounding world.

This summer, two years into my post-doc at Stanford University, USA, I found myself carefully crafting a new superposition— that of being both an instructor and student. By experiencing the highs and lows of learning again, I honed my teaching skills and learned how to better engage students with research as I continue to work towards a better understanding of the world.

In the past, when mentoring a student, I have frequently taken the common top-down approach. That is, I trained my interns in an important experimental task in which I am an expert and worked with them to apply those skills to a problem. Given the 2020 quarantine restrictions and current work from home environment, as an experimental scientist, I’ve had to rethink my research and how I can mentor my summer student intern virtually.

Rather than synthesizing new materials or building a new microscope, we dove into a theory project— to be exact, a density functional theory (DFT) project. The only catch? I had never done a DFT calculation before. I found myself taking a co-learning approach by working together with my student to build a set of new skills to solve a known challenge in my research field.

I realized I was entering a superposition of instructor and student when the imposter syndrome set-in. In a meeting at the start of summer, I started thinking, “I’m afraid to ask a question because everyone will realize I don’t belong here. If I can’t figure this problem out by myself, should I be working on this topic?”, while simultaneously thinking, “I’ll bet students who are new to a topic think the same thing, and I need to make sure I create a welcoming environment.” When I finally went to office hours for the high-performance computing system I use, I heard three different instructors say excitedly through the video call, “Someone came to office hours! How can we help you?”

I was able to get the help I needed to move our project forward and felt much more enthusiastic about our project. I realized the imposter syndrome is typical and that, as an instructor, I need to create welcoming spaces so that students feel comfortable to reach out for guidance.

Learning from my intern has been a highlight of my summer. As we continued to explore DFT, often we encountered questions in which I had no immediate answer, and it was my intern who discovered the solution. Tackling a problem with curiosity has led us to new paths, whether it is exploring new materials systems or applications. As this summer wraps up, my intern and I have made more progress than I previously thought possible.

My current superposition of teacher and student reminded me how students interact with new material and provided a feedback loop to my instruction. Learning something new can be simultaneously fascinating and intimidating and working as a team with my students offsets the latter.  

I plan to extend the coherence of this superposition by incorporating new topics to future mentoring so I can see what my students bring to their research and to learn from their knowledge and skills. 

Image for keeping the session alive