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Adam Jermyn

Much of who I am I owe to cold New England winter nights spent stargazing with my
grandfather. In August of last year I visited him and was reminded that the man who inspired my
love of physics and astronomy had forgotten who I was and been reduced from a brilliant mind
to an empty shell by Alzheimer’s disease. That same month, my simulation of that same disease
ground one of the fastest supercomputers in the world to a halt. As principal investigator of a
Department of Energy grant, I burned through twenty million core hours modeling protein
folding, following work with Nobel laureate Dr. Ahmed Zewail. I patched my software quickly,
eager to resume the simulation, eager to help understand a problem that hit so close to home. As
a physicist, I had never expected to work in biochemistry, but my ability to model molecular
motion allowed us to uncover the importance of salt levels in protein aggregation, a realization
that is now shaping work at the Prusiner prion lab at Stanford. My grandfather passed away in
May; I find the fact that he would have been fascinated by this work comforting.
My experience with protein folding helped me realize that I wanted to use physics
research for broader impact. I had made a friend while auditing a graduate quantum mechanics
course as a freshman, and she invited me to work on solar energy. Researching solar energy in
the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, I found myself immersed in a driven and optimistic
community, where phrases like “go save the world!” replaced “have a nice day.” The hope in the
air propelled me forward, and I developed with my friend a model for how microscopic antennas
absorb light based on quantized plasma oscillations. This model is informing new high efficiency
solar panel designs, and was recently submitted to Nature Communications [1] to communicate
our advances to the quantum plasmonics community.
Around the same time that I started working on solar energy, Prof. Jason Alicea, my
statistical mechanics instructor, asked me if I wanted to work with him in the Institute for
Quantum Information and Matter. The question he posed to me was related to the way that many
electrons can come together to produce an emergent particle known as a parafermion, which has
the remarkable property of being able to remember where it has been before. In addition to
understanding the importance of this problem in constructing practical quantum computers, I was
fascinated by the notion of a particle that remembers its history, as well as by its emergence from
millions of electrons with entirely different behavior. I knew I had to understand this
phenomenon better, and in investigating this question we discovered that while parafermions are
very sensitive to the surrounding world, the residual effects they leave behind when perturbed
nevertheless protect quantum information. These exciting, counterintuitive results pave the way
for numerous future directions in the field of quantum computing. We published this work in
Physical Review B, where it was chosen as an Editor’s Suggestion [2], and I presented it at the
APS March meeting this year. Traditional quantum computing is like a house of cards. Like the
slightest breeze, minuscule magnetic fields or thermal fluctuations destroy its integrity. We
showed that parafermions replace the cards with welded steel, protecting quantum information in
the beautiful order of a parafermion.
In my research I constantly find relationships which are beautiful, at least to me. In solar
panels and quantum information I found millions of simple electrons synchronized in an intricate
dance, while in Alzheimer’s I caught a glimpse of millions of complicated proteins packing
together into simple structures. These experiences were two sides of the same coin: the
interactions of many pieces create emergent phenomena completely different from any behavior

A friend told me that I was “never as excited” as when I spoke of this work. At that point I realized that the intersection of astronomy and emergent phonemena was where I wanted to work. This light had been traveling since before human civilization. Sterl Phinney. In the process I found the kind of relationship that I loved in my past research: the same eddies drive the flow of an ocean breeze and the steam above a cup of tea and the inferno inside every sun. and seeing it with my own eyes sparked a moment of awe. This inspired my senior thesis with Prof. . in which I modeled how one star can drive winds deep in the interior of another [3].Adam Jermyn of the individual parts. I began to see this big picture last year. I was fascinated to discover how these small whirls together control the evolution of entire stars. around the same time that my love of astronomy was rekindled by a trip to Palomar Observatory. at least in certain regimes. There I looked through one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth and saw a collection of millions of stars thirty thousand light years away. That was the key to my thesis: fluid mechanics and heat transport in stars are ‘renormalizable’: rescaling the parameters of the system leads to the same physics.