Physicist aiming to grow a forest of innovation

Updated: 2013-10-17 00:07

By Cheng Yingqi (China Daily)

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Some people believe one tree does not make a forest. In some circumstances, this may not be true.

One example is a forest consisting of only one banyan tree, located near the Mangling village in Ruili, Yunnan province.

And the case of the one-tree forest also describes the situation in the division of quantum physics and quantum information of the Hefei National Laboratory for Physical Sciences at Microscale, University of Science and Technology of China.

"There is a way to create a forest from one tree: the tree extends its branches in all directions, like the banyan tree, so each branch can take root on the ground and stand parallel with the trunk," said Pan Jianwei, founder and director of the division.

For the quantum laboratory staff members, Pan is the trunk.

His passion on quantum research dates back to his undergraduate years in the 1980s at the university. At that time the ambitious young man could not find a suitable quantum lab in China — the potential for quantum technology was not widely recognized.

Pan studied for his doctoral degree under world-famous experimental quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger, now at the University of Vienna.

At their first meeting, Zeilinger asked Pan about his dream and Pan said it was to build a world-leading lab like Zeilinger's in China.

"I always knew he would have a wonderful career — but the incredible success that he has had, I do not think anyone could have foreseen. I am very proud of him," Zeilinger was quoted as saying about Pan in Nature magazine in December.

Between 2003 and 2008, Pan carried out experiments on quantum communication and quantum computation in Germany, and received a number of awards for his work, such as the Erich Schmid Prize and the Fresnel Prize.

In the meantime, Pan already started preparations for his dream of a world-leading lab.

Pan established the quantum lab in the University of Science and Technology of China in 2001. Between 2003 and 2008, Pan searched the globe for talented scientists to join his team.

Chen Kai, now a professor at the university, was the first overseas returnee in Pan's team.

"Pan is the person who led me to the frontiers of quantum research," Chen said.

He still remembers in 2001, when he was a postdoctoral researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics, he heard Pan at a quantum information conference. He was immediately obsessed with quantum information processing.

After finishing his studies with the institute, Chen went to the University of Toronto and the University of Bonn for research on quantum information, and then he went, after Pan, to the University of Heidelberg in 2006.

"In Heidelberg, Pan's guidance led my research direction to experimental quantum information, the frontier of the science. That is why when Pan decided to go back to China, I was the first follower," Chen said.

Now Chen leads a team that specializes in quantum communication and quantum information in Pan's group.

Zhang Jun, 31, received "directional training" for the lab as an undergraduate. When the lab was first established, Zhang was still a freshman at the University of Science and Technology of China.

"In the beginning, I was just curious about Pan, so I did research assistant work in his lab. Then I found Pan was one of those people who had this charismatic quality that makes you want to work with him," Zhang said.

Thus, Zhang finished doctorate study, and went to Switzerland, as recommended by Pan, to learn photon detection technology, which is a key technology in quantum communication.

When Pan quit his job in Germany and returned to China in 2008, he brought a team with him. The average age of Pan's team, which consists of about 20 scientists, is 35.

"Our people in the lab may not be the world's best on any specific research branch. Yet our advantage is that we have a team that is capable of handling complicated problems that need multidisciplinary expertise," Pan said.

"Just like the one-tree forest, from one trunk, we struck out in all directions. When our branches are strong enough, we can be the forest."