Traveling Light: Ph.D. Candidate Cynthia Osuala
This Stevens doctoral student uses complex quantum theories and equations to help build real nanostructures that could aid navigation, sensing and more
Growing up on the east side of Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, Cynthia Osuala often took her natural curiosity about math and science outside the classroom to perform experiments in the abundant sunshine.
“I’d get a piece of paper and see if I could catch it on fire with magnified sunlight,” she laughs. “Things like that.”
A decade-plus later, she’s still working with light energy — only now as a quantum scientist working closely with Stevens faculty to push the boundaries of this emerging science further as she completes the requirements for her Stevens Ph.D., which she hopes to receive in the spring of 2026.
“It’s really fun,” she says of her research. “I love numbers, I love physics, and I love having New York City right across the river. Coming to Stevens was a great decision.”
Enjoying New York, pushing quantum frontiers
Osuala learned about Stevens after extensive research into New York-area schools with very high reputations in quantum physics.
Stevens’ Center for Quantum Science and Engineering, led by director Yuping Huang, caught her eye immediately.
“I knew I wanted to be in a place where great work and discoveries were taking place,” she says.
But first she headed to Japan to add to her research toolbox. In 2019, while completing her master's degree in Nigeria, Osuala was awarded a competitive scholarship and stipend to work on-site at Japan’s prestigious RIKEN scientific research institute.
There, she learned to use a Python-driven software package to model quantum transport under various temperature and magnetic-field parameters, then obtain graphic outputs of the result. That would prove highly useful once she arrived on Castle Point.
“It turned out that the professor who became my adviser was using the same software package,” says Osuala. “Immediately we had a lot to talk about!”
Traveling from Africa to the northeastern United States to study has been an adventure that hasn’t stopped yet, she says.
With breaks for the occasional trip over to the city — she particularly enjoys visiting Times Square in warmer weather, or Rockefeller Plaza to see the annual Christmas tree in early winter — Osuala is attracting admiration for her novel research at the fascinating boundary between quantum science and materials science.
What’s a typical day in a Burchard Building office like for a computational physicist? Sitting at a terminal working out complex quantum computations that capture materials geometries and energy states, mostly.
“My research is primarily in theory,” says Osuala. “I ‘play’ with different types of structures, most recently graphene structures, modeling them numerically under various conditions.”
To inform her work and broaden her skill set, she has already taken several courses with CQSE director Huang — “he always comes into the lab to check on students” – and worked closely with physicist Chunlei Qu, her doctoral advisor, who “has been amazing: he’s passionate about this research, and also tries to help you understand what you are doing and why. If I am not quite understanding something, he will continue to work with me until I get it.”
In fact, Osuala recently co-authored two papers with Stevens faculty groups, while also completing a third as primary author.
“She is a highly motivated and diligent student,” notes Qu.
For one of the projects described in those publications, Osuala performed calculations that helped enable a collaborating team of Stevens scientists led by award-winning professor EH Yang to fabricate nanoscale graphene interferometers — devices that can measure weak magnetic fields with quantum-enhanced sensing capabilities.
“When charged particles traverse through this device,” she explains, “certain oscillations occur due to interference along various paths of the device.”
That effect was discovered more than 60 years ago by physicists Yakir Aharonov and David Bohm; a similar effect also occurs when the device is rotating, enabling the realization of a sort of quantum gyroscope that can do rotational sensing. When fabricated and calibrated to take advantage of this effect, interferometer devices are potentially highly useful for navigational sensing in everything from satellites to spacecraft to smartphones.
Osuala’s co-authors on the paper included fellow doctoral candidate Zitao Tang and professors Stefan Strauf, Yang and Qu.
Her other papers involved an even broader group, drawing in researchers from DEVCOM (the U.S Army’s primary research laboratory) and Spain’s Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. The work also became part of the official proceedings of the International Conference on Nanotechnology in South Korea in July.
In one of those studies, Osuala helped demonstrate an unexpected effect created when more interference channels are added to tiny devices.
When a charged particle traverses a two-channel device, the effects and patterns are well-established and known — and used for rotational and magnetic field sensing. But when the team added additional channels to its interferometer, then increased the magnetic field applied to the experiment, something surprising happened.
The interference pattern displayed an oscillation akin to the diffraction grating pattern observed for light, then reverted to the pattern produced in two-channel devices as the applied magnetic field reached higher and higher levels.
Osuala and her collaborators were able to resolve the mystery: some of the added channels, they determined, were somehow being “blocked” because of another quantum effect under the strong magnetic fields.
“That was surprising and exciting,” she says, “and it paves the way for a fresh approach to engineering quantum interferometers with practical applications in sensing.”
Campus activities, future plans
As she continues progressing toward her doctorate, Osuala remains active on campus. She currently serves as a peer mentor to four fellow physics students (“I have been through this; I have the experiences to share”) as well as vice president of Stevens’ African Student Association, which hosts semi-regular events on campus open to all. Those events share African foods, crafts, clothing and music with the wider campus community.
“The small size here is just what I wanted,” she says of the university’s hilltop location and social scene. “It’s possible to meet everyone right here on this campus, and the view is exceptional.”
So what’s next? While Osuala isn’t completely sure, she’s leaning toward further graduate studies (in the form of a postdoctoral appointment) to strengthen her knowledge of the rapidly evolving quantum industry — and then, maybe, a career in academia.
“I not only love research, I love teaching as well,” she enthuses.