Alumna Michelle Lollie Takes Non-Traditional Journey to Break New Ground in Science

Friday, March 03, 2023
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A supporting campus environment and several undergraduate research opportunities helped physics alumna Michelle Lollie, PhD, achieve her goal of becoming a quantum physicist, now working as an advanced laser scientist with Quantinuum.

Call it fate, destiny or just good fortune that aligned like the fundamental elements of science to pave the way for 2016 physics alumna Michelle Lollie, PhD, and her groundbreaking pathway toward a worthwhile career in science.

And an amazing journey.

How else do you explain how, as a 28-year-old bank employee in Atlanta, with a bachelor’s degree in finance, she happened to come upon a research paper on quantum teleportation. It piqued her interest in becoming a quantum physicist. 

Or, later being motivated to send an email, with details about her personal story, to Rose-Hulman’s Admissions Office to inquire about the possibility of enrolling as a non-traditional student to the college’s highly respected optical engineering program. Within days, there was a response and plans for a visit.

By that fall, at age 30, she was studying mathematics, science and other first-year level courses alongside much younger classmates on campus. 

“To consider the trajectory of my career, it all started with Rose,” assessed Lollie during a recent online interview. “Rose-Hulman took a chance on me and it was a pivotal moment, because if I hadn’t been admitted into the physics program, it’s a non-zero probability that I might not be in physics today … The words #ForeverRose and ‘Fightin’ Engineers’ mean a lot to me, as they do to a lot of students who go there.”

Lollie went on to become the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and since last fall has been an advanced laser scientist specializing in lasers and optics at Quantinuum, Honeywell’s quantum computer spinoff located outside of Denver. Her PhD research includes classical and quantum optics using spatial modes of light for advanced secure communication.

That brings her story back to that seminal research paper, written in 1993 by Charles Bennett, Gilles Brassard and others on quantum information theory, that caught her attention as she became frustrated with her work in finance. 

“I didn’t know what it was at that time, but I knew I wanted to study whatever quantum teleportation was about. The paper mentioned entanglement (a quantum mechanical concept), and I figured out that meant I should study physics,” said Lollie in reflecting upon her educational journey.

Filling gaps in her educational background with classes at Rose-Hulman in computer programming, linear algebra and vector calculus, Lollie also gained valuable experiences on campus in directed research that examined several methods to measure the spot size of a Helium-Neon Gaussian laser beam and setting up experiments with a variety of optical equipment. 

That opened doors for her to have a summer internship in Germany on experimental quantum optics, another internship in Naval Air Warfare Center’s Atomic Physics Lab and a National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates in theoretical quantum optics at LSU. Those opportunities earned her a place in Indiana University’s physics graduate program through the American Physical Society’s Bridge Program, and later transferred to LSU.

“Michelle knew where she wanted to go, even though she might not have known what quantum physics was precisely. But every step got her more comfortable and closer to getting where she is today,” remarked Galen Duree, PhD, professor and head of Rose-Hulman’s Department of Physics and Optical Engineering (PHOE). “She was determined to succeed. She was willing to put forth the extra effort and seized upon every opportunity to gain those experiences that put her ahead of some of her classmates when it came to graduate school. And getting that PhD was always her goal.”

For her part, Lollie remarks, “It wasn’t easy. Rose-Hulman kicked my butt on several occasions, but never dashed my resolve and determination that I couldn’t make it. The hands-on learning that you get at Rose-Hulman was the foundation for me. Getting in the lab and getting my hands dirty really solidified a lot of the theoretical concepts that I had been challenged by in the classroom. That’s something that remains constant with me to this day and one of the biggest things that I appreciate about my Rose-Hulman education.

“You don’t just learn theory with basic lab skills,” she continued. “There is a concerted effort to hold Rose students to the level of professional engineers and scientists so that they hit the ground running upon graduation. I think this is why our job placement rate is often 99% annually by the end of the summer following graduation. Rose has heavy industrial recruitment and their commitment to practical ability in their students, in my opinion, is the reason.” 

Finally, Lollie added, “There are people along the way at Rose who saw something in me. I don’t know what that was. I’m spiritual, so I think it was just meant to be. There are just certain things that just lay out for someone during their journey, their path, and Rose-Hulman was a big part of that for me.” 

So, it may have been kismet after all.