Solving the Big, Big Problems

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Casey Oliver '10 (right) and a fellow REU student from Boston University demonstrate a complex mathematical equation during the Department of Mathematics' Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

by Jennifer Botchie '99

TWO STUDENTS stood at a blackboard, painstakingly writing out a complex mathematical equation that spread across almost the entire board. Seven more students sat around a large conference table, and five faculty members sat at desks or perched on a table on the periphery of the room. In smaller clusters, they quietly compared notes of their own as they watched the two write. Once finished, the pair at the board turned to the others and began explaining their work.

"How did you arrive at this?" one of the faculty members asked, prompting a discussion of the students' thought process. After a few minutes of back-and-forth, the two students turned back to the blackboard, erased a bit here and rewrote a bit there to rework the equation.

This is the world of quantum information theory (QIT), and this summer three Susquehanna students, along with students from six other select colleges and universities in North America, experienced the trial-and-error process of studying this rapidly expanding field of mathematical physics.

Their intensive eight-week study at Susquehanna was made possible through the Department of Mathematics' Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant will allow mathematics professors Lisa Orloff Clark, Jeffrey Graham and Alex Wilce to continue working with researchers and undergraduates on the project for the next two summers as well. REU grants awarded to other institutions have also allowed Susquehanna students to embark on similar study off campus.

QIT has connections to both pure mathematics and theoretical computer science. It is "about leveraging quantum physics to find new ways of processing data," says Graham. The research is, in part, an attempt to mix the languages of the different areas tied through QIT, and one thing it may do is help make encryption simpler in computer science. Because of the emerging possibilities and potential connections to security applications, the U.S. Department of Defense took an interest in Susquehanna's REU and offered partial funding for it.

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