Q & A with Michael Wall

Former Mines PhD student and recipient of the 2014 Nicholas Metropolis Award for Outstanding Doctoral Work in Computational Physics, Michael Wall, was invited to present “Quantum many-body physics of ultracold molecules in optical lattices: models and simulation methods,” at the American Physical Society March Meeting 2014 in Denver March 3-7. Nearly 10,000 physicists, scientists and students are expected to attend the conference and present research from industry, universities and major labs from all over the world. Nearly 50 abstracts will be presented by Mines researchers.


Q: Why is winning the Nicholas Metropolis award significant in the world of physics? What is the potential impact of your research?

A: The Nicholas Metropolis award is the dissertation award given by the American Physical Society (APS) for computational physics, named after one of the inventors of the Monte Carlo method. The APS dissertation awards are significant because only one person is awarded each year in a given area, even though there were nearly 1,800 physics PhDs awarded in the U.S. in 2012!  It is an honor for me to receive this award, and a great reflection on Mines as an institution.

My research is focused on understanding the behavior of very, very cold gases of molecules.  These systems are expected to enable revolutionary advances in quantum many-body physics, precision measurement, and chemistry, and may also have practical applications in quantum metrology (i.e. atomic clocks).


Q: What was your graduate experience like at Mines? How was it working with (physics professor) Dr. Lincoln Carr?

A: I loved attending graduate school at Mines. I visited several schools all over the country when deciding on graduate school, and Golden immediately struck me as one of the nicest places to live. In addition, Prof. Carr took me both around the school and around Golden personally, something that potential advisors at other schools did not do. Lincoln is very enthusiastic about research, and also very dedicated to his students. While Mines was the smallest school that I visited, I still had every opportunity I could wish for.


Q: Talk a bit about finding the balance between your PhD work and parenting/other responsibilities.

A: While on one hand obtaining a Ph.D. while raising two small children was challenging, being a graduate student also gave me scheduling flexibility while my wife worked long and odd hours as a nurse. The most important skill for balancing work and family life is good time management, which is key for any graduate student. It also helps that Golden is a wonderful place to raise a family.


Q: You are from Alabama, was moving to Colorado a difficult adjustment on top of everything else?

A: The hardest thing about moving is that all of my family is still in Alabama. Several generations of my family are from my hometown of Huntsville, and my brother and all of my cousins and their families still live there. Modern technology makes the distance so much easier, though. My kids routinely see their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins by video chat. Also, while a Colorado summer beats an Alabama summer hands down, the snow took some getting used to...


Q: What are you working on now? 

A: After leaving Mines I took a postdoctoral research position at JILA (CU Boulder), working with Ana Maria Rey. JILA is one of the premier places in the world for atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) research, which is the field of my Ph.D. JILA is also home to the most successful ultracold molecule experiment. My current research is still in the general area of many-body physics of atoms and molecules and computational techniques. However, I also work more closely with the many great experiments here at JILA, including the next generations of ultracold molecule experiments and atomic clocks.