In the following Q&A we explore the captivating journey of Yunqiu Kelly Luo, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at USC Dornsife, as she shares insights into her quantum research, international collaborations, and the unique challenges faced by immigrant researchers in academia.
Yunqiu Kelly Luo is a Gabilan Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and the Principal Investigator of the Ultrafast Quantum Opto-Spintronics Group at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Luo was raised in the cities of Chengdu and Yibin in Sichuan Province, China. Her academic journey began at Ohio State University before leading her to her current role at the forefront of experimental physics at USC Dornsife. In this dialogue, she shares the story of her evolution from a childhood immersed in the wonders of nature, to leading USC's Ultrafast Quantum Opto-Spintronics Group, exploring the dynamic couplings of quantum degrees of freedom in solid-state systems.
This conversation not only delves into Luo's groundbreaking research projects, focusing on the development of magneto-optical probes and collaborative initiatives on a global scale, but also provides poignant insights into the challenges faced by immigrant researchers in the U.S.
What inspired you to pursue a career in research, and how did you get interested in your current field of study?
I’ve always been fascinated by nature since a young age, curious about exploring the physical world around us. As a kid, one of my favorite pastimes is to watch the discovery channel and the animal world's documentaries. Since [my] early teens, my parents lived next to the West China Medical University, and I often wandered around medical students’ labs imagining becoming a future medical researcher. In high school, I started to immerse myself in the subject of physics. I was deeply attracted by its simple and sometimes unintuitive explanations of our physical world. Plus, it was the only subject that I didn’t memorize anything for the exam!
As a freshman in college, I joined the iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) team thinking that I was going to pursue a career in life science. After a summer of working with PCR cloning plasmid and trying to kill some flying fruit flies, I came to realize that I don’t really enjoy working with living organisms. The rest of my undergraduate I worked in a photonic crystal lab at HKUST and then a quantum optics lab at UCSB, where I was exposed to the world of lasers and nanoelectronics. I started to like the daily work of building intricate optical setups with constant feedback and surprises between hypothesis and data. I also realized that discoveries are often made by staring at the small differences between signals and random noises, experiencing extreme confusion and immense attraction at the same time. From there, I decided to pursue a research career in experimental physics with lasers and nanodevices.
Can you describe the research projects you are currently working on and how they contribute to your field?
We are currently working on the development of high sensitivity magneto-optical probes to detect spin dynamics of quantum materials at nanometer length scale, femtosecond time scale, and down to a single atomic layer. We are also working collaboratively with national and international user facility scientists to probe magnetic and electronic excitation and propagation processes using extreme bright light, x-ray, and high-energy electrons. Our research aims at improving control over quantum degrees of freedom that can store, transmit, and exchange information. We believe this is essential to the advancement of quantum science and technology, which can potentially enable new forms of nonvolatile magnetic memory, low-power computing, optical interconnects, and multifunctional hybrid materials with widespread societal impact.
How did the U.S. immigration system help or hinder your efforts to establish your career here?
For decades the U.S. graduate schools have been recruiting young talents from all over the world, which has continuously fueled the vibrant research ecosystem in this country. On one hand, I applaud the timeliness of the U.S. embassy issuing me a F-1 visa immediately after my graduate school admission. On the other hand, the financial burden of traveling out of the country to renew my visa and the indefinite visa processing time put a huge stress on my graduate study. Like many international scholars, I was faced with the choice between either buying expensive flight tickets home not knowing when I would be able to re-enter U.S., or staying in the U.S. to ensure my research projects remain productive. I chose the latter and therefore inevitably faced the family sacrifices: the lost times with grandparents and parents, the birth of new family members, the graduation and birthday celebrations, etc. I know that my experience is nothing but a common story among one million international students in this country. To this day, the stress and sacrifices every international student endure are rarely discussed in the public domain.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments so far in your research career?
My biggest accomplishments in my research career are the collective new ideas and experimental endeavors I get to embark on with my wonderfully kind and creative colleagues. In this publish-or-perish academic climate, I was very lucky and privileged to be mentored by Ph.D. and postdoc advisors who are visionaries of the field. They imparted onto me that the belief that the value of a research work should, in my view, first speak for itself, and regardless which journal the work gets published in, the impact is the same in the long run. I was constantly nudged to ask deep questions, to come up with ideas that upheave established norms of the field, and to pursue projects that are high risk and high reward. These never-resting explorations filled with plenty of head-scratching moments are the most valuable experiences in my research career.
Can you talk about any collaborative projects you have worked on with colleagues from other countries?
Currently we have a project to use the X-ray source from BESSYII synchrotron at Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin, Max Planck Institute, to image spin-torque driven magnetic domain switching process on various magnetic and topological heterostructures. Specifically, the femtoslicing source at BESSYII allows optimal conditions for on-chip time-resolved scanning-transmission X-ray miscroscopy (tr-STXM). The measurement was originally scheduled to take place in June 2023, during which time we were going to travel to Germany to work shoulder to shoulder with staff scientists at the institute. Due to a hacker attack in early June, this plan is postponed. We are getting ready for the adjusted new measurement schedule soon.
What advice would you give to other immigrants who are pursuing careers in research or academia in the United States?
As an immigrant researcher, I had to learn and to adapt to the local culture that are intertwined with the daily work culture. I spent 6 years of graduate school at Columbus, Ohio, one of the most culturally homogenous areas in the U.S. I often biked around suburbs and rural Ohio realizing my life experience is so contrasting from the local community. Being the outsider often feels like a barrier but can also be a unique source of strength. The feelings of ‘out of place’, ‘no one looks like me’ that I often get, are also a protection mechanism that shields me from others' expectation. In some sense, I have a greenlight to speak my mind because I’m free of others’ expectations. If it is of any use for others I encourage them to make use of this greenlight to ask bold questions in conferences, and to question the established knowledge in their fields. After all, they don’t know what to do with us anyway.
What do you see as the future of research in your field, and how do you plan to contribute to its progress and advancement?
The future of quantum materials and device research in my view is evolving into an eco-system with multidisciplinary collaborations and global competitions. The conventional lines that define subject fields of study are increasingly more and more obscure. Experimental discoveries are no longer done by a few guys hiding in the basement labs figuring stuff out among themselves. Instead, new ideas and breakthroughs are often achieved by a group of individuals with diverse cultural and academic backgrounds. I will contribute by building a research team of undergraduate, graduate students, and postdoc scholars, and welcome high school interns, international exchange students, and visiting scholars. Most of the proposals that I wrote are for team grant competitions with members from multiple engineering and science departments. Some are specifically tailored for international collaborations. In the past two years, I’ve been organizing the American Physical Society March meeting scientific sessions. This is the world’s largest physics conference with more than 12,000 physicists traveling from around the world to present their most recent discoveries.
Any final words?
The STEM community has a long way to go towards gender, racial, and many other aspects of equality and inclusiveness. The most recent report by the American Institute of Physics states that: ‘In 2017, women earned 21% of physics bachelors’ degrees and 20% of physics doctorates. In recent years (2007–2017), the percentage of women earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy has not changed over time. However, the percentage of women enrolling in physics graduate programs and earning a physics doctorate has continued to rise.’ It also reports that about half of physics PhDs are earned by non-US citizens. My experience has been that the culture of U.S. academia is more welcoming to new immigrants than most higher education institutes in Asia. Immigrants have been the source of innovation and societal changes for this country. Therefore, the government and the private sectors need to do more to encourage and to retain us for the pursuit of the American dream.