We have chosen Professor Vasseur to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his research on correlated quantum systems, with a focus on the interplay of strong interactions and quantum entanglement. His Research interests in Condensed Matter Theory reinforce his commitment to following one’s passion for science. Please take a moment to review Professor Vasseur’s website here.
Welcome to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus! As a new professor, what are you excited about the most with regards to your first semester here?
Thank you! I’m excited about getting my research program up and running here at UMass, and I’m looking forward to working with students in the department. After four years in California, I’m also pretty excited about my first New England winter!
What is your professional background? What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what? How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?
I did my undergraduate studies in France. I majored in Physics at the Ecole Normale Superieures (ENS) in Lyon and Paris. I went to graduate school at ENS Paris and CEA Saclay (a national lab near Paris), and then did a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley. I was lucky to work closely with very motivated and talented students at Berkeley, and I’m hoping this background will help me mentor students at UMass.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to? What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?
As an undergraduate student, I really enjoyed physics and mathematics so going to graduate school was natural. I chose to go to ENS in Paris because it has one of the best Physics departments in France. I was initially interested in high energy physics, mathematical physics, and string theory, but I ended up working on condensed matter theory near the end of my PhD. My advice for students considering graduate studies would be to pick a field of research you are really excited about and choose the right advisor to work with. The role of your advisor will be really crucial during your PhD but also afterwards, for your career in general, so it is important to pick the right person for you.
What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?
Find out what you want to do early on, and focus on developing skills related to the field you’re interested in.
In 140 characters, explain your research:
I am a condensed matter theorist working on quantum entanglement, topological phases, and non-equilibrium quantum dynamics.
What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?
Statistical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics.
Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?
I worked with undergraduate students during my PhD, and I mostly worked with graduate students during my postdoc. I would like to take undergraduates in my group at UMass: some of my research interests (related to the young field of many-body localization for example) are especially well suited for undergraduate research as they only require a modest amount of knowledge with rewarding results at the end. These projects usually involve a numerical component that should be accessible with a little reading and proper supervision.
In general, what class is your favorite to teach, past or present?
I am teaching graduate Statistical Physics (P602) this semester which should be a really fun class to teach. I really like statistical physics so I’m hoping to communicate my excitement to my students.
What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on in the past?
This is a tough one: there are many projects I worked on that I really enjoyed, but if I had to choose one, I’d go with this paper: “Quantum criticality of hot random spin chains” (https://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.217201). This was my first paper at Berkeley that only involved junior authors — we were all postdoc at Berkeley at the time, and working on this project was really exciting.
What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?
I like outdoor activities — day hikes mostly. I also enjoy swimming, cooking, trying out new restaurants and making craft cocktails.