Rice U. physicist Ming Yi wins coveted Moore Foundation grant

Rice University physicist Ming Yi has won a $1.6 million experimental investigat
Rice University physicist Ming Yi has won a $1.6 million experimental investigator grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems Initiative (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

EPiQS award will support high-risk, high-reward experiments on quantum materials

To the quantum materials in her lab, Rice University experimental physicist Ming Yi is a real pest. She pokes them with beams of light, provoking them in a way she knows they can’t ignore, and then she records the whole thing and s it with everybody.

They don’t know the half of it.

Yi’s lab and others at Rice are temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she’s preparing to pester quantum materials in ways they’ve never experienced thanks to a prestigious $1.6 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation ’s Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) Initiative.

Yi, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and member of the Rice Center for Quantum Materials (RCQM), is one of 20 U.S. scientists awarded a 2020 EPiQS experimental investigator grant, the foundation announced today. The grant is unrestricted, which gives each investigator the flexibility to pursue innovative research that could significantly advance the field.

EPiQS is a $185 million initiative launched in 2013 to accelerate progress in the study of solid materials and engineered structures with bizarre electronic properties that often arise when electrons interact strongly with one another and behave in a collective fashion. For example, electrons in strongly correlated materials can behave as if they are thousands of times more massive than they should be, form pairs and flow without resistance and behave as if they have a fraction of a charge.

"I am still establishing my lab and this support will help me assemble the resources I need to go in novel directions,” said Yi, who joined Rice in 2019. "As an early-career researcher, I’m very grateful that the Moore Foundation is willing to support my efforts to develop tools that take correlated quantum matter into new regimes.”

Yi is a specialist in angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES), an experimental technique that uses light to prod quantum materials into releasing electrons, which are imaged as they fly away. Based on how fast the electrons fly from a sample and in which directions they fly, researchers can decode key electronic properties of quantum materials.

"In a sense, these measurements are like taking photographs of electrons that are flying out of the material,” Yi told Rice News in December. "Each photograph tells the lives the electrons were living right before being kicked out of the material by photons. By analyzing all the snapshots, we can piece together the underlying physics that explains all of their stories.”

Yi said ARPES imaging can reveal more details about the quantum nature of exotic materials if the samples are squeezed, stretched or physically perturbed in other ways. She said the Moore funding will give her lab the flexibility to purchase new equipments to make these kinds of measurements.

"You can learn by looking at things, but if you can poke them and see how they respond, that’s a higher-level way of learning about them,” Yi said. "We can squeeze quantum materials or apply a field, for example. Many techniques are being developed.

"The goal is to gain fundamental understanding about the emergent phases of matter in quantum materials,” she said. "Right now, we want to study correlated materials in various kinds of environments. But ultimately we want to not just understand but also to control their electronic phases.”

RCQM leverages global partnerships and the strengths of more than 20 Rice research groups to address questions related to quantum materials. RCQM is supported by Rice’s offices of the provost and the vice provost for research, the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, the Brown School of Engineering, the Smalley-Curl Institute and the departments of Physics and Astronomy, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Materials Science and NanoEngineering.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area. Visit Moore.org or follow @MooreFound.