“Beam Me Up!” Talking Quantum Communication with Michelle Lollie
February 25, 2022
In this episode, President William F. Tate IV speaks to LSU physics and astronomy doctoral student Michelle Lollie. She discusses her area of expertise, quantum communication, and how it may help protect our most sensitive information — from your credit card number to health records — from being hacked in the future as well as preventing cybersecurity attacks. Lollie also discusses her advocacy for equity across STEM subjects, particularly in the field of physics.
Michelle Lollie is a physics and astronomy doctoral student at LSU. As part of the Quantum Photonics group, she is investigating high-dimensional quantum communication using twisted light. She’s an advocate for equity across STEM subjects, particularly in the field of physics, and is a steering committee member of American Physical Society's Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance. and. She holds multiple degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in Finance from Clark Atlanta University, a bachelor’s degree in physics from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and a master’s degree in physics from Indiana University.
On Par - Michelle Lollie
[00:00:00] President William F. Tate IV: Welcome to “On Par with the President.” Joining me is LSU physics and astronomy doctoral student Michelle Lollie. Her research is focused on developing ways to transmit data at high capacities within robust quantum systems. Her area of expertise, quantum communications, may help protect our most sensitive information --from your credit card number to health records-- from being hacked in the future, as well as preventing cyber attacks. In addition, Lollie is an advocate for equity across STEM subjects, particularly in the field of physics, and she is a member of the steering committee of the American Physical Society's Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance, and Physics and Astronomy's DEIA.
[00:00:57] “On Par with the President” is a podcast that is focused on LSU community members who are doing great things. A golfer who can play par golf is at the very top of the game. And so the whole point of this podcast is to talk to extra ordinary people who are affiliated with LSU. I've got to say from the beginning before I asked my questions, the reason you're here is because I've never seen anyone more excited about quantum physics in my life, but let's help other people get to know you. Where are you from and how did you get to LSU?
[00:01:30] Michelle Lollie: I am from a small city called Southfield. It's just north of Detroit in Michigan. And, um, you know, made my way to and through the Midwest down here to Louisiana state.
[00:01:42] President William F. Tate IV: You hold multiple degrees, both in finance and physics. When did you decide to move from the business world to science?
[00:01:51] Michelle Lollie: So I started out at, uh, Clark Atlanta. Um, I think it's very apropos, um, especially in the current climate to, um, just give support to [00:02:00] the HBCU. So, Clark Atlanta university or the illustrious Clark Atlanta university-- I went there and obtained my degree in finance. And by junior year, I knew that the field wasn't for me. I had family members who had went into finance. And so when you're young, you're kind of figuring out what you want to do. And I said, "Oh, well, you know, I'll do what they did." And I had friends of mine who had done internships for, you know, major investment banks and just these stories that we would share, uh, I didn't see that as a part of my personality, the person who I would need to be, uh, to survive and thrive as it were. And I ended up coming across a Seminole paper, um, on quantum teleportation. And this was during a phase where I was kind of figuring out what I really wanted to do. And once I read that paper, you know, I thought, “Beam me up, Scotty!” Like a lot of people I found out later to my disappointment, it wasn't about “Beam me up, Scotty!” But it was about beaming information. And I said, "Hey, I don't know what that is, but I want in." And that's what led me to my path of physics.
[00:03:03] President William F. Tate IV: Talk to me about why higher education and your continued education has been important to you?
[00:03:07] Michelle Lollie: So my grandmother was born and raised in Mississippi and unfortunately at the time, the only job that she could find was, um, picking cotton. I want to make sure people know that's a modern story, right? Obviously slavery had been over for over a hundred years. But unfortunately, for her, uh, you know, there weren't really a lot of opportunities where she could actually provide for her and her, um, her family. It's important for me to show her that, "Hey, you know, this is what you did. These were the sacrifices you made for my mother's generation." Um, to which they further pushed the legacy of education. Several of the members of my family have, um, a master's degree. And then I will be the first to have the PhD in a STEM field, no less. So it's all about moving the legacy of education forward. Education is important for a variety of different reasons. Needless to say, when graduation comes around and I get to hand my [00:04:00] degree to my grandmother, that'll be, that'll be a pivotal moment to let her know her sacrifice is not lost.
[00:04:03] President William F. Tate IV: Well I want to make sure I get in the photo op that one, I want to be there for that.
[00:04:07] Michelle Lollie: Look, it'll be this May.
[00:04:09] President William F. Tate IV: Oh, well, God willing, that's going to happen, then I'll be in.
[00:04:12] Michelle Lollie: Yeah, God willing, absolutely.
[00:04:14] President William F. Tate IV: So now, here's the hard question because you're literally a physicist. Right? That's what you are. And for a lot of people, that's kind of intimidating. How would you demystify quantum research and help people understand it at the local and community level?
[00:04:34] Michelle Lollie: People will come up to me all the time and say, "Oh, you're at LSU. What do you study?" "I study physics." And the first thing they say, "Oh, you must be so smart." No, I just work really hard. I'm passionate about the field. It's interesting to me and I want to learn more. We have to reframe this notion of intelligence being linked with certain fields. Nurture being linked with other fields, artsiness seen as being linked with certain other fields. Um, it all kind of works together. Look it up and see if it's of interest to you. Quantum research seems very high and lofty and people are talking about it. It comes from very basic mathematical principles that one starts to really get end a middle school, maybe the beginning of high school. And if you're interested, it is absolutely accessible. I was in finance and I happened to read a paper. I understood probably five to 10% of that paper, but I remember just seeing teleportation and that word just sparked, you know, an interest. And now, again, later on disappointed that it's not, I'm not able to beam myself anywhere. But we can beam information. And so it was the initial spark of interest and not being afraid to be uncomfortable or feel like I had yet to get it. People want to make it seem special and, "Oh, you're special because you study this thing." No, I just had an interest in this field and I went for it. And I think one has to have that humility. Because we are, you know, the caretakers, right? Of the physics. And we want to make sure that everyone can have access to it, if they'd like. And I'm here to tell you that you absolutely can do it. You absolutely can have access to it. You can read those Google articles and then go be formally educated in the field.
[00:06:26] President William F. Tate IV: Help me understand this. And a lot of people will understand quantum and securing their private information online. There's a lot of conversations about that. How else will quantum communication impact the average citizen? And you can project out into the future if you would like. You know, go ahead and get Star Wars-like on us here, and really help us understand. Because I want people to leave this knowing that this is an area that they really need to pay attention to.
[00:06:54] Michelle Lollie: Quantum communication, the end-all right now, the technology that is getting everyone in a tizzy is the quantum internet. a fully perspective hack proof, um, or a penetration test proof, robust way to link people together. So we have the current internet and obviously we've seen a variety of different information breaches, what have you. The one thing physically that dominates the conversation of quantum is when you have a secure protocol. We always use people sending in messages, Alice, Bob, and Eve. Eve is short for eavesdropper. So Alice is trying to send a message to Bob. For the quantum internet, the point is to make sure that Eve cannot access any of the information, um, because some people will say, "Well, if she gets information that's useless, it doesn't matter." How do you define useless information? You never know what other resources the eavesdropper could have to put the puzzle together. So, the quantum internet is kind of the dream where it's hack proof and that is taking a lot of collaborative efforts globally. So that is the big deal, is that we can actually have a quantum internet and that you are 100% certain that your information is safe. This is from the individual securing their credit card information to very big conglomerates and their industry secrets. So again, this is very forward thinking, you know, we're talking some decades in the future. Some people think a lifetime or more, um, just because we're still working with the constituent parts. Some people are very aggressive with their thoughts of when technology will be brought on board. Some people are more conservative, um, but make no mistake. We are definitely moving in that direction. And that is kind of the big deal right now. I think that will be the first big deal. I think, many more are to come.
[00:09:01] President William F. Tate IV: Being a product of Clark Atlanta university, I am not surprised--
[00:09:06] Michelle Lollie: The, the illustrious Clark Atlanta University!
[00:09:09] President William F. Tate IV: Oh my gosh, here we go. The illustrious Clark Atlanta university--I'm not surprised of your heart to humanize what you're doing. And I know you're involved with equity-related work in STEM fields and wanting to see more people who may not have historically been involved with physics and other STEM fields across racial lines. Tell me about your experiences there and what drives your advocacy work related to STEM education.
[00:09:38] Michelle Lollie: My advocacy actually started because of things that I faced, um, while I was actually going back to school and just, just some hardships. I was an older student, obviously going back to school with, you know, surrounded by younger students. And unfortunately it-- well, it's starting to change now, but unfortunately, historically it was perpetuated in the media. You know, physicists looked a particular way. Um, typically white male, it makes individuals who don't look like that, it prevents them from maybe seeing themselves successfully in that area. Because oh, well only people who look like that study that, so that's not for me. And people end up counting themselves out. This kind of links back to the previous discussion, um, on like, you know, being able to make quantum accessible to the local community. And, you know, my equity work really revolves around culture of a department and the culture of inclusion in the department. And having spaces where students can feel free to express, you know, discouragement, disappointment, um, especially with those in power and the department.
[00:10:47] So for me, equity is more about shared leadership. It's about centralizing marginalized voices. And we you talk about educational hierarchy, especially the graduate student, I could be biased, but, um, there's always the stereotype about the workhorse, right? The graduate students. And because different groups are ran differently, you just never know what's going to come out of that. I've had a pleasant experience. Not every graduate student can say that. And because of the power dynamic between a student and their advisor, a student and a department chair, a dean of a college. Not our dean. Cause I love Dean Peterson. But it absolutely affects how the student feels that they can navigate in that space. You don't want to say anything because you don't want your advisor to keep you away from opportunities. So for me, the focus of my equity work. Does it go into the fact that I'm a black woman and I'd like to see more black women in STEM? Absolutely. The big picture for me is making sure that everyone has access to share their experience and be taken in as an entire individual human being and not relegate it to conforming to a culture that's not them.
[00:11:58] President William F. Tate IV: Well, thank you for that. And it sounds like you're going to be a university president.
[00:12:05] Michelle Lollie: [laughs]
[00:12:06] President William F. Tate IV Let's, uh, segue to a couple of fun questions, maybe one fun question. So you've described your hard work and your research, but you have personal time, too. People might want to understand what does a physicist do for fun? What's important to you? What do you like to do?
[00:12:17] Michelle Lollie: I sleep. What are you talking about? No, you know, I, um, have a couple of hobbies. One is I've actually recently taken up the violin. I do like learning and I do like doing different things. And so I said, you know what? Physics sometimes, um, especially just being a graduate student, not even in physics, right? But grad school can be stressful. So let me take up, you know, something interesting that I want to do and I can do it lifelong, right? I can continue to improve for my life. I said, I, you know, I'll do the furthest thing from physics and I'll study an instrument and I chose the violin, to which a friend quickly pointed out, "You know a violin is waves on strings, right?" Which is like physics 101. So even in my endeavors to move far from physics, the violin is an instrument that is purely based on physical isolation.
[00:13:05] President William F. Tate IV: Well, I hear you had a question for me, I'm not sure if that's accurate or not, but if you do...
[00:13:10] Michelle Lollie: Yes, you know, and this actually ties into the discussion just before the previous. As stakeholders at the university, what kind of structure that you've seen so far that you're working on, perhaps in the future-- what structures will be put in place such that students, junior faculty members, senior faculty members, um, can move towards that support? That kind of departmental collaboration, but that it's a partnership and not necessarily us against them. I don't know if you would even be doing any initiatives like that. But if you could see something, what would that look like at LSU, such that those relationships and those collaborations and those bonds could be more colleague-like? Especially at the graduate level, but even extending it to undergrads.
[00:14:00] President William F. Tate IV: Well first, as a former graduate dean, I always tell people graduate education is the most decentralized function on campus. Um, it is absolutely driven by department culture. And as you noted in your conversation, it varies by lab. The variation is significant. Um, what you're describing requires some form of standardization that, uh, when I took over as grad dean at Washington University, I told people was just not possible. But what I did say there, and then what we accomplished and what we're trying to do here is-- one of the great tensions that manifest itself for graduate students in this, where this power dynamic plays out initially, in my opinion, is around resources. And, um, if we thought through, um, some standardization strategy where we said that there was a floor, with respect to what graduate students-- in particular PhD students-- who I think, you know, live, breathe, uh it's their life course. Masters students are a very different world, as you know, But the full-time PhD student, um, in my opinion, should have a very much a guaranteed floor on their finances that they are receiving, so they can live a life with some dignity and respect. That's at its very core to me.
[00:15:20] Michelle Lollie: We'd appreciate that.
[00:15:20] President William F. Tate IV: And, on the other hand, um, it's extremely important that they have and can take care of themselves and have a healthy life. And that requires substantial, uh, health insurance investment. And so in combination, if you provide graduate students, PhD students in particular, this floor where they can actually live here in Baton Rouge. And also that their health benefits are taken care of in a consistent fashion, and in a fashion that they don't have to think about what's gonna happen in year three of my studies or year four. It lowers the pressure and the anxiety, which makes for the possibility for greater collaboration. Because I think at its core, we as humans, want to make sure our needs are taken care of. And, um, I feel like right now that's the opportunity in front of us at LSU. And we have a committee looking at that right now. I had a committee like that at South Carolina. I listened to him for a while and afterwards I just said as provost, "No, here's the floor and you're going to pay their benefits." And you've got to adjust how many people you admit based upon your resources to get them to that floor and make sure they have that benefit.
[00:16:30] Now that changes the game. And I think we're headed that way because quite frankly, and I've said this in a public forum, it's unethical to admit students at the PhD level and not give them time horizon in terms of their funding and their healthcare benefits in clear terms. As long as they are doing the academic work and stay in good standing with the university and their department, they should be funded for a window at least to five years, in my opinion. You know in science, if it's taking you longer than five years to do it, somebody's already beat you to that problem. So they've already got that solved. You're going too slow. But the five-year window would give people, I think, um, a chance to really, um, work well. And I think it also takes a little sting out of the power relations because the professor can't lord over you with, "Well, maybe your funding's not going to be there." No, the heck-- that not the case. The funding's there if they're in good standing, so it changes everything. And I think that's something we need to do here at LSU. I'm committed to that. And during my tenure, I want to see that fixed.
[00:17:37] Michelle Lollie: Well, I personally thank you for that. You know, something that you mentioned, it releases the pressure. And I think for a graduate student, especially doctoral students, um, the further you get in your program towards doctoral candidacy, and then after candidacy, there's so much on our minds. Department challenges that are unnecessary. That's one [00:18:00] thing that can be taken off of our plates. So I really appreciate the fact that even though you noted that it's kind of an impossible problem that would require several iterations-- maybe machine learning-- to understand how one could address department variation, you found a solution that was just as applicable, um, which is also systematic in that, hey, well, if we can give them a way to have some dignity, that could give them a bit of confidence to know that their lifestyle, you know, won't be adversely affected if there is, you know, any kind of challenges with their immediate supervisor. So thank you for that.
[00:18:36] President William F. Tate IV: Well, we'll try to make it happen. Michelle, it's been great to have you on “On Par with the President.”
[00:18:40] Michelle Lollie: Thank you.
[00:18:41] President William F. Tate IV: You certainly represent the more excellent way and we appreciate you very much. Thank you.
[00:18:47] Michelle Lollie: Thank you very much.