Professor Suchitra Sebastian from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory has been awarded the Schmidt Science Polymaths award. Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, announced ten new recipients of the award, which provides $500,000 a year, paid through their institution, for up to five years to help support part of a research group.
The Polymath programme makes long-term bets on recently-tenured professors with remarkable track records, promising futures, and a desire to explore risky new research ideas across disciplines. The awardees are the second group to receive the Polymath award, joining just two other exceptionally talented interdisciplinary researchers named in 2021. The awards build upon Schmidt Futures’ commitment to identifying and supporting extraordinary talent, and growing networks empowered to solve hard problems in science and society.
Professor Sebastian’s research seeks to discover exotic quantum phases of matter in complex materials. Her group’s experiments involve tuning the co-operative behaviour of electrons within these materials by subjecting them to extreme conditions including low temperature, high applied pressure, and intense magnetic field.
Under these conditions, her group can take materials that are quite close to behaving like a superconductor – perfect, lossless conductors of electricity – and ‘nudge’ them, transforming their behaviour.
“I like to call it quantum alchemy – like turning soot into gold,” Sebastian said. “You can start with a material that doesn’t even conduct electricity, squeeze it under pressure, and discover that it transforms into a superconductor. Going forward, we may also discover new quantum phases of matter that we haven’t even imagined.”
Other awards she has received for her research include the World Economic Forum Young Scientist award, the L'Oreal-UNESCO Fellowship, the Lee Osheroff Richardson North American Science prize, the International Young Scientist Medal in Magnetism, the Moseley Medal, the Philip Leverhulme Prize, the Brian Pippard Prize. She is an ERC starting and consolidator grant awardee. Most recently, she was awarded the New Horizons in Physics Prize (2022) by the Breakthrough Foundation.
In addition to her physics research, Sebastian is also involved in theatre and the arts. She is Director of the Cavendish Arts-Science Project, which she founded in 2016. The programme has been conceived to question and explore material and immaterial universes through a dialogue between the arts and sciences.
“The very idea of the Polymath Award is revolutionary,” said Sebastian. “It's so rare that an award selects people for being polymaths. Imagining new worlds and questioning traditional ways of knowing - whether by doing experimental theatre, or by bringing together art and science, is part of who I am.
“And this is why in our group, we love to research at the edge - to make risky boundary crossings and go on wild adventures into the quantum unknown. We do it because it's incredibly fun, you never know what each day will bring. To be recognised for this by Schmidt Futures is so unexpected and exciting, the possibilities this award opens up are endless. I look forward to embarking on new quantum explorations, it’s going to be a wild ride!”
The awards build upon Schmidt Futures’ commitment to identifying and supporting extraordinary talent, and growing networks empowered to solve hard problems in science and society. Each Polymath will receive support at the moment in their careers when researchers have the most freedom to explore new ideas, use emerging technologies to test risky theories, and pursue novel scientific research that traverses fields and disciplines; which is otherwise unlikely to receive funding or support.
“The interdisciplinary work that could herald the next great scientific breakthroughs are chronically under-funded,” said Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures. “We are betting on the talent of the Schmidt Science Polymaths to explore new ideas across disciplines and accelerate discoveries to address the challenges facing our planet and society.”
Hopeful Polymaths from over 25 universities submitted applications outlining research ideas in STEM fields that represent a substantive shift from their current research portfolio and are unlikely to receive funding elsewhere for consideration to the Schmidt Science Polymaths program. Existing Polymaths’ ideas range from the artificial creation of complex soft matter like human tissue, to the development of synthetic biology platforms for engineering multicellular systems, to the discovery of exotic forms of quantum matter. The impact of this type of interdisciplinary research could result in innovations previously thought impossible like a 3D printer for human organs, climate change-resistant crops, or the unknown applications of quantum matter.
“Single-minded -specialisation coupled with rigid research and funding structures often hinder the ambition to unleash fresh perspectives in scientific inquiry,” said Stuart Feldman, Chief Scientist of Schmidt Futures. “From climate change to public health, the Schmidt Science Polymaths utilise the depth of their knowledge across a breadth of fields to find new ways to solve some of our hardest problems for public benefit.”
Cambridge physicist Professor Suchitra Sebastian to join group of ten recently tenured professors named to Polymath Program, awarded up to $2.5 million each for interdisciplinary research support.
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