Irina Novikova, a professor in William & Mary’s Department of Physics, has been named a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Founded in 1899, the APS is a non-profit professional organization of approximately 53,000 physicists from academia, industry and national laboratories. Elevation to fellowship is in recognition of exceptional contributions to the field of physics. No more than 0.5% of members are named fellows of the organization each year.

Novikova is the eighth current member of the W&M physics department to become an APS Fellow. The others are Patricia Vahle, David S. Armstrong, Christopher D. Carone, Kostas Orginos, Keith A. Griffioen, Jianwei Qiu and Marc T. Sher.

The addition of Novikova’s fellowship underscores the excellence of the physics department and spotlights the vast potential of W&M’s proposed new school bringing together Computer Science, Data Science, Applied Science and Physics.

“Irina Novikova and her research group are a cornerstone of atomic and laser physics, and more broadly quantum information science, at William & Mary,” said Seth Aubin, associate professor of physics. “She has developed an extensive research program that uses optically-induced quantum coherence of atomic states for quantum memory, precision magnetometry and squeezed light.”

“I shoot lasers at atoms and put them in weird quantum states,” said Novikova. (Courtesy photo)

Novikova explained that her main area of expertise is using light to manipulate quantum states of atoms and vice versa. Atoms are the building blocks of all matter, but they are also tiny quantum systems with enormous potential.

“The beauty is that atoms of the same element are truly identical, and they’re quantum by nature,” said Novikova. “Plus, if one knows quantum mechanics, atoms are fairly easy to understand. That makes them beautiful playgrounds for figuring out how to do new things.”

For example, one of Novikova’s long-term projects is magnetometry. She explains that atoms change their energies slightly when put in a magnetic field, and the amount of that change depends on their quantum state. 

“Many atoms are like little magnets themselves,” said Novikova. “So in a magnetic field, they will point in one direction or another direction. Depending on the direction, the energy shift will be a little different. What is most exciting is that now we have lasers to accurately measure these tiny changes, and thus measure the magnetic field.”

What this boils down to is a highly precise measurement system with a wide range of uses.

One example is cardiac diagnosis. Currently, electrocardiograms (EKGs) are the main diagnostic tools for cardiologists. Novikova explained that an EKG is an indirect measurement of cardiac activity, as it measures changes that take place within the skin. Doctors then determine how those skin changes reflect what’s going on within the heart. Magnetometry, on the other hand, is a direct measurement of the actual electric currents that control the heart.

“With magnetometry, doctors can see exactly what’s going on inside the heart,” said Novikova, “And it’s measured very precisely.”

Magnetometry’s extremely accurate measurement capabilities can be applied to improve efficiency in a wide variety of other fields, including satellite technology and navigation. It’s also highly effective in the detection of things like oil reserves and submarines.

“Quantum science is taking off in so many different directions,” said Novikova. “It’s great to see how something you’ve been working on for so long that used to be considered a bit exotic and weird is now being taken seriously. We’re currently talking about which devices we can build and how we can manufacture and mass produce them. It’s really exciting to visualize.”

Novikova regularly communicates and collaborates with researchers from other disciplines and institutions.

“Irina has employed her strong leadership skills to build several successful multidisciplinary and multi-institution collaborations to undertake ambitious science projects with academic, federal and industry research partners,” said Aubin. “Her leadership activities also extend to organizing national conferences and serving as an editor for journals.”

Novikova would like to see the general public gain more knowledge of the basics of quantum research and its applications. To that end, she gives public talks whenever possible and attends numerous science education shows at local elementary and middle schools.

She has also led PhysicsFest, the physics department’s yearly open house, since its inception 13 years ago. In addition to lectures and demonstrations, the event provides an opportunity for members of the general public to tour physics labs and talk to scientists about their research.

“I think quantum physics has a reputation of being really weird,” said Novikova. “And yes, it is completely counterintuitive, but applied quantum science is really changing what we can do with current technology. I think that a wider understanding of its basic principles and applications will help to expand new possibilities in other fields. It’s a really exciting area of physics to become familiar with right now.”

, Research Writer