Carnegie Mellon University
October 19, 2023

Wen Li and Phu Nguyen Receive Peoples Fellowship

By Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Ph.D. students Wen Li and Phu Nguyen are charging forward with new ideas in physics. They theorize how microscopic patterns can have huge effects on superconductivity and quantum states.

"Their theoretical research is related to some of the most interesting aspects of topological physics in condensed matter systems," said Vladyslav Kozii, assistant professor of physics and advisor to Wen Li and Phu Nguyen. "They both are very independent bright young scientists with their own interesting ideas."

Based on their strong commitment to research, Wen Li and Phu Nguyen were awarded the John Peoples Jr. Research Fellowship. This is the first time two students have received the honor in the same year.

"Phu and Wen stand out as brilliant young scientists deserving the fellowship," Kozii said. "They both are very strong with their unique approach to doing research, both come up with original interesting ideas. While they only finished their first year in graduate school, I see a lot of potential in both of them."

Wen Li

The certainty and discovery that studying physics offers excites Wen Li.

"It's my comfort zone, and I like to study this," Wen Li said. "I like to learn different ideas and more fundamental theories. You find the truth behind a chaotic or messy situation. Every time I start to find a deeper truth about something, it just makes me happy."

Wen Li investigates topological superconductivity, specifically how superconductivity is related to symmetry.

"There's one type of symmetry that a superconductor has to have, and my job is trying to find exceptions," Wen Li said. "How can we break such limitations?"

In order to be superconductive, materials need to be in strict conditions such as being symmetrical in order to keep electrons in a low energy state, which allows the electrons to move through the material without resistance.

Wen Li investigates the theory behind how a material might not need symmetry to keep the electrons in a low-energy state. If he can identify potential materials and asymmetrical configurations, experimentalists could test his theories.

"Part of the reason researchers are so eager to find and engineer topological superconductor is that it may be a promising platform for quantum computation," Kozii said. "Wen's research, if successful, may be extremely helpful to different laboratories working on this problem. Furthermore, it may predict the existence and indicate the ways to realize new exotic superconducting states."

Phu Nguyen

Phu Nguyen likes math because it makes theoretical physics beautiful.

"Doing physics without a solid math background is like reading a book in a language you barely know; you may be able to do it, but it's hard to enjoy, and there are subtleties that you will miss," Phu Nguyen said.

Phu Nguyen is developing a theory for how a superconductor could work in a material with low electron density. Currently, existing theoretical understanding cannot account for previous experiments that have produced materials that exhibit superconductivity at a variety of unexpected conditions, including temperature, pressure and electron density. If Phu Nguyen can develop a working theory, he could offer experimentalists a framework that could allow for the discovery of more feasible and practical superconductive materials.

"If the problems with superconductors are solved, we'll completely solve the energy crisis," Phu Nguyen said.

Phu Nguyen's other project investigates the relationship between anomalous Hall conductivity and viscosity in electron hydrodynamics. Under certain conditions, electrons can collectively behave like a fluid when moving through matter, where electrical conductivity behaves like fluid viscosity. Phu Nguyen said he hopes to determine the existence of this correspondence and develop predictions that can be verified by experimentalists.

"Phu is trying to relate an adequate theoretical description of strongly interacting quantum states to another interesting concept, which is the notion of topology in solids," Kozii said. "Topology was originally a mathematically abstract study, so the idea that it has its manifestation in condensed matter physics brought a lot of excitement to the community."

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