Campus & Community

Visionary Leadership Drives the Integration of Research and Education in the Physics Department

Department Chair Ting Yu’s mentorship model shapes the physics department in innovative ways

Yu and Huang with students in quantum lab
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Ting Yu

The impacts of strong leadership can be felt at every level of any organizational structure. Such is the case in the Department of Physics, of which Dr. Ting Yu has been the chair since 2017. He was recently reappointed for a second term, which will run from September 1, 2020 to June 30, 2025.

Under the leadership of Professor Yu, the physics department has made impressive progress. The department has recruited three top-notch tenure-track faculty members to strengthen its quantum research team. To broaden the educational experience, they have also introduced a successful Freshman Physics Seminar, created multiple new quantum courses, and established the Quantum Information and Quantum Optics Teaching Lab, the first of its kind in the country. To strengthen graduate programs, the department created a master's concentration in Quantum Engineering as well as a joint certificate in collaboration with the Department of Mathematical Sciences in Quantum Computation. Additionally, the department formed a partnership with Saint Peter’s University for a new four-in-one program.

Such exceptional progress cannot be made without exemplary leadership and an emphasis on mentorship that reverberates throughout the entire department.

Visionary leadership

Faculty in the physics department expressed profound appreciation for Dr. Yu’s visionary leadership style. “Professor Yu is a pioneering voice in the field of theoretical quantum physics,” Assistant Professor Yuping Huang said. “He is patient with the physics department leadership, which is very important in the competitive field of research and development. He has been very supportive of our efforts in the Center for Quantum Science, which is a school-wide center with a strong base in physics. He believes our center will also be the axis of the physics department. His leadership style is quite visionary.”

One of the things that makes Dr. Yu’s mentorship style so unique is that he doesn’t limit his departmental vision solely to what’s happening on campus. Yu understands that the success of any institution extends far beyond campus limits. “Professor Yu is very open minded and he understands how academics work. He also knows that in order to make good progress, we must broadly engage people from outside,” Huang said. “He is very supportive of faculty entrepreneurship. He wants us to invite as many people and stakeholders as possible to make our vision happen, because that’s what it really takes to succeed.”

Hiring new faculty

Another very important aspect of both departmental and student success is exceptional faculty.

“After he came to this position, we hired three young faculty whose research is at the frontlines of theoretical quantum physics,” Huang said. “This greatly enhances our research portfolio in this field as well as education. The faculty here boosted our quantum physics application criteria with their cutting-edge research and development.”

Once again, Professor Yu is not limited to external appearances only; his vision extends far beyond that. Hiring an outstanding faculty in this area is merely a humble first step. “The young faculty members are our future, and one of our department core tasks is to support our young faculty in their career development,” Yu said. “Quantum research is an exciting frontier, but it is also very competitive. From teaching and research, to service and student mentoring, the department works hard to ensure that young faculty will successfully develop a remarkable career path that leads to their tenure and promotion.”

The value of quantum research

Quantum was an important area of focus for physics prior to Yu’s assumption of his role as department chair. But quantum continues to be a top growth priority for the department, and Yu has made concentrated efforts to promote the development of quantum research.

“We organized an international workshop on quantum information and computing, and reorganized research areas into several clusters to ensure a healthy environment for faculty and staff in the frontier of quantum information and quantum computing, as faculty excellence is key for our department's reputation and impact in research and teaching,” Yu said. “We are working hard to attract outstanding young faculty members and to pursue research in areas related to quantum science and technology.”

The students in the physics programs directly benefit from this emphasis on quantum research, with several innovative programs and courses being offered.

“Besides hiring new faculty members, we are also strengthening our educational activities in quantum areas such as creating a new quantum master concentration, offering new courses in quantum information, quantum computing, and quantum machine learning,” Yu said. “At the same time, we are working diligently to recruit highly motivated graduate students in the areas of quantum science to ensure the continued success of faculty's research in these branches.”

But why is quantum research so important?

“Quantum mechanics is the most accurate theory behind mother nature as well as human beings and how we function. For a long time we didn’t have the technology to take advantage of the impact that it can give us, in terms of how to increase our computational power, how to solve the cyber security issue, and how to increase the capability of our sensing,” Huang said. “These things are possible in the quantum mechanics world, but hardware development has not previously been developed to the point that we could really crack quantum devices and take advantage of the enormous potential there. But now, after so many years of development in the field of electronics and optics, we can. Quantum is the forthcoming revolution that will give our civilization a new level of technology. It is the job of our department and the entire community to pass the torch to the new generation.”

Student centricity

Speaking of the new generation, the development of physics students—from undergraduate to Ph.D.—are central to Yu’s vision of departmental success. The research areas of quantum science and quantum technology are important to the department’s vitality. But without extending the benefits of that research to the students, those efforts will fall flat.

An extension of Yu’s visionary leadership is illustrated by the way he integrates research with education and particularly with how he ensures that research opportunities are provided even to undergraduate students.

“He creates opportunities for faculty to get more students involved beyond the classroom and does a lot of work engaging undergraduate students,” Huang said. “Involving undergraduates and graduate students in research is valuable in many ways and you don’t see happening in many places. People will talk about it but in terms of actually getting it done, it involves a lot of time and effort.”

To further illustrate the revolutionary aspect of this viewpoint, Professor Huang described his own personal experience with mentoring a particular undergraduate student. “I spent a lot of time advising this student until he became so good that after graduation, he got a very good scholarship at another institute,” Huang said. “That’s our effort and our work, but it’s not recognized in any way at Stevens. But our duty as educators is to bring the student to success so that they can have a very bright future. It is not about getting credit for what the student has accomplished. We are very into making sure the students will be successful in the future. It isn’t about what we as the educators can get from their success.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration across departments

In addition to involving students of all levels in departmental research, Professor Yu also works to bring these opportunities beyond physics to other departments at Stevens.

“One step in our strategic plan to accomplish our vision is to strengthen the collaboration between the department and the other research groups on campus,” Yu said. “Since our department is relatively small, collaboration amongst different research groups is especially important.”

But cross-campus collaboration is more than just a departmental development strategy.

“In order for us to realize the potential of quantum mechanics, we must have good engineering work. We must make very good integrated devices, as well as very good software to go with them. These things cannot be accomplished by physicists alone. This is why our interdisciplinary approach is so valuable,” Huang said. “We must work with researchers in many different fields to resolve challenges before we can create quantum devices that would bring value to the world. We are looking at not just the physics departmental research, but also the creation of functional quantum devices and systems. I’m very excited about what we can do at Stevens because of our long tradition of engineering. This is precisely what is needed to take quantum physics to quantum technology that will be useful in people’s daily lives.”

Limitless future potential

Professor Yu remains humble yet laser-focused on his long-term vision, both for the department and for the field of physics throughout the world. For Yu, it’s not about what any one person in the department can accomplish, but about what the entire department—and indeed, the university—can achieve with a combination of shared goals, innovative research, and a common desire to be catalysts for positive change in the world.

“This new research direction is very important in many ways, as quantum information and quantum computing make great impacts on many current aspects of quantum foundation and traditional information technologies,” Yu said. “From an educational point of view, research in the field of quantum science and engineering can also provide an excellent platform to train new generations of young quantum scientists and engineers. Looking forward, quantum research seems like an excellent growth point for our department to continue in the future.”

“I’m very excited about what quantum can do and I’m very enthusiastic about what Stevens is doing now in this space,” Huang added. “We are trying to build as much as we can to bring up the technology and bring up the next generation of innovators and technology leaders and very qualified engineers.”

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