Alumni Profile: Abram Falk ’99

Interview by Ken DuBois, Editor

The experimental physicist and Catlin Gabel lifer shares thoughts on quantum computing, third-grade optics experiments, and trusting yourself to ask the right questions.

What are some of the applications for your current research projects?
Quantum computing has a natural application to molecule simulation because molecules behave quantum mechanically themselves. We are working with partners to do some of those simulations now, which includes refining the techniques to make the quantum simulations valid. The applications include new battery materials, catalysis for fixing carbon from the air, and protein folding. And the most prominent application of quantum computing is factoring numbers, which is used for breaking codes.

There’s a more general field in quantum computing called quantum communication, which is one thing I’m working on. It involves encryption using single photons, which itself is a potential form of sending secure messages through fiber optics.

Was your interest in experimental physics developed in part by experiences at Catlin Gabel?
Yes. I remember the optics experiments we did in third grade. We didn’t have lasers, of course, but we had lights and prisms, mirrors and boxes. It was freeform experimentation—you didn’t have to achieve a certain goal. You just had these optics tools to play with and experiment with. That was a fun experiment.

I have always liked math and physics, and in high school I got some special support that really encouraged me. I wanted to take calculus as a junior, not a senior, so my teacher worked with me to do a summer course on precalculus where I just did problems and sent them to him, and he looked at them remotely. I’m sure that was unpaid; he was just doing it out of the kindness of his heart. It really made a difference to me.

Do you continue to be guided by the “spirit of inquiry”—the idea that the search for answers is valuable in itself?
There are always questions to ask. I think one of the key skills you need as a scientist is to decide which questions are important and which ones are questions you can think about and then just drop. And you have to trust yourself to be the judge of what those questions are. I think that self-trust is something that Catlin has really instilled in me. Catlin encourages kids to not just have a rote learning, but to follow your interests and trust yourself to be pursuing the right path.

Are there other aspects of your Catlin Gabel experience that inform your approach to scientific research?
One thing is certainly the community. I think that science in this age is almost always a team effort. And I think having friends and colleagues that you trust and that you’ve worked with for a long time is really important to being a scientist. One of the things about Catlin that sticks with me the most is just how strong the relationships were between the students. Nelson Coates [’99] for instance, we’ve been classmates since first grade. And we’ve worked on projects a little bit together now that we’re both physicists. That kind of relationship is something special that Catlin gives you.

  • Research staff member at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, NY) studying quantum photonics and quantum computing (since 2014)
  • Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago (2013-14) and the University of California, Santa Barbara (2010-13)
  • Awarded the Elings Prize in Experimental Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara (2010)
  • Received a B.A. in Physics from Swarthmore College (2003) and a Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard University (2009)
  • Author of 35 scientific research publications and granted 20 US patents