What IS the quantum world? By one definition, it’s a place where more than one reality is possible at the same time. (In fact, that could be a workable definition of the liberal arts as well.) Physics major Rahul Shrestha ’21 has a bit of that magic, too. He’s many things at once: student, teacher, researcher, yearbook editor and designer, international citizen, and more.
Shrestha, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. after graduation, can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in physics. “I have always been curious about how things work and how things came to be. On a fundamental level, everything boils down to the interactions that are bound to the laws of physics; so, physics was a natural place to look for answers.”
His first college physics class, Physics 125, confirmed he was in the right place. “125 dazzles you with all the interesting physics you will encounter in upper-level courses,” he says. “By being less rigorous, it allows you to explore and learn more about the topics on your own with the first-year intellectual innocence.”
And the class’s final project, “Quantum computing: Creating a Hadamard gate using an optical isomer,” ended up shaping his passion for quantum information — a subject that has threaded its way through his college career via research, independent studies, and other projects.
Multiple opportunities for research under expert guidance
Physics students are known for their agile, curious minds, and it’s pretty apparent that Shrestha relishes research — he completed two projects as a summer scholar, a directed study, and a senior research project, “Photoionization of Barium and Lanthanum in an ion trap,” under the direction of Associate Professor of Physics Steven Olmschenk.
But that wasn’t quite enough to slake his appetite. He also completed an independent study on quantum information theory and a directed study on how to give planetarium shows. Persistence and careful analysis are the keys to a good researcher, says Olmschenk. “Rahul is currently working with me on a senior research project, which is focused on photoionization loading of the ion trap. As in all his previous research in my lab, his engagement with the project is at the highest level. He is carefully analyzing the ablation production of ions and neutral atoms to ascertain the effect of the photoionization light. He is a fantastic researcher.”
Shrestha has been enthusiastic about being a scientist since he was a child. But with all this experience under his belt, his perspective has changed about what that means.
“The mini objectives and side projects that lead to a better understanding of the experiment, and the endless troubleshooting of problems, which feels like playing a game of whack-a-mole, help us inch our way towards the eventual goal,” he says. “I have come to appreciate the explorative part of research and learned to take pride in my understanding of the experiment. ”
Building management and technicals skills through an on-campus internship
Taking on Denison’s yearbook gave Shrestha an opportunity to exercise a different set of creative chops. He signed on board with the staff his first year and now leads the entire project, which involves managing other students and building his own skills in software like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.
He also learned a life lesson about the importance of asking for help. “I am one of those who always wants to do everything by themselves, and I know that’s not how being a leader works. I had to pick between giving up on it and getting out of my comfort zone.”
Groups like this are a great way for students to find friends and peer mentors. Shrestha met then-senior physics major Patrick Banner ’18 on the yearbook staff. “He has been, to this day, a source of constant support for me, from writing a summer research proposal to applying to graduate schools,” says Shrestha, who also became close to yearbook advisor Jamie Hale in the University Communications office. “Over the years, he has turned into a friend.”
Taking the lead by leading a class
Denison’s Lisska Center for Scholarly Research invites students to lead their own “mini-course” and teach fellow students a favorite topic. It was inevitable that Shrestha chose to teach a course in physics. Teaching turned out to be more challenging than he expected.
“I had students who were from all backgrounds, from first-year Econ majors to senior physics majors. Conveying the material to keep everyone awake while keeping it fun and digestible was difficult.”
He reworked his syllabus and created worksheets for his students — which helped him achieve an even deeper understanding of his material. “Thinking about those questions and the most important and fundamental material, helped me distill my understanding about quantum computing.”
“Obviously, teaching material that I am passionate about came with a lot of fun. It pushed me to learn more about the topic, since I had to be ready for questions that might come up during the class. I have been a tutor, and a lab TA before, but designing my own course gave me an insight into how much preparation is required to teach. I have an increased respect for professors at Denison.”