CSL profile: 'Get entangled' with Eric Chitambar

6/5/2024 Amber Rose

Written by Amber Rose

Growing up, Eric Chitambar watched his father, a physician, run both a clinic and a research lab. This made a huge impression on him during those early years. “Seeing my dad do basic science research made me more curious about learning things,” Chitambar says. Now, years later, Chitambar is a theoretical physicist and professor of electrical & computer engineering (ECE) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and runs his own research lab.

Although he thought medicine or biology could be interesting paths to pursue, Chitambar did not follow exactly in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he was drawn to physics early on in high school and that’s where he decided to focus his science.

“I started studying physics at the University of Notre Dame as an undergrad, and I actually started a double major in physics and philosophy,” he says. “The main motivation for me then—that still drives me, my research and the way I think about things today—was big, deep questions. There’s a variety of different ways you can approach big questions in life, and I was drawn to the complementary directions of physics and philosophy.”

While looking into graduate school, Chitambar was actually interested in studying string theory since it’s a fundamental theory of physics that tries to provide a comprehensive description of nature–a grand unifying theory. “At that point, I had no idea what research was, I just thought it was taking more advanced classes. But I really liked the question of trying to understand why things happen.” Chitambar says. However, when he got to grad school at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, the opportunities for studying high energy physics just weren’t there at the time.

Pivoting from that direction, Chitambar looked for other options available to him, and that’s when he encountered quantum computing. “I hadn’t heard of quantum computing at that point, but I attended what ended up being a very impressionable talk,” Chitambar says. “I realized what was great about quantum computing and, more generally, quantum information science, is that it can simultaneously satisfy my two curiosities. One of the philosophical kind, understanding why nature is the way it is. And one of the practical kind, discovering what cool stuff can we make and do.”

Chitambar did both his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Michigan in quantum computing that blended physics, computer science, information theory and mathematics. This interdisciplinary approach is reflected in his current research group. Following postdocs at the University of Toronto and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and his first academic position at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Chitambar joined the Illinois ECE faculty in 2018.

He also holds affiliations with the Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL), the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL) and the department of computer science (CS), and he is a member of the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST).

“I’m excited because, as a field, we are actually making pretty good progress. The things we are trying to do, or at least have identified as goals, are very challenging. I am encouraged by what I see going on, but there is still a long way to go.”

Eric Chitambar

With students from physics, ECE, CS and even math, the Chitambar group is comprised of a diverse set of researchers working in the area of quantum information theory. Chitambar explains that the idea is to exploit the properties of quantum systems—meaning very, very small systems—that behave differently from macroscale systems. On such a small level, quantum properties can be observed. “The question that we ask is, given that these objects behave differently, can we use them to our advantage and use the quantum properties of matter to perform tasks that are not possible, or at least very difficult to do, using conventional hardware?” Chitambar says. “We want to use these properties to develop information processing systems, devices and technologies, which can hopefully enable enhanced communication, faster computation, secure communication, more energy efficient processes or stronger sensors.”

Chitambar’s group focuses on the communications side of quantum information science, where quantum entanglement is an important property for secure computations and communications. “Entanglement is one of those strange properties that emerge at the quantum level,” Chitambar explains. “It allows different systems to be correlated in ways that can’t be achieved classically. We try to exploit these features of entanglement to produce new schemes for communication across a network and to do this more securely.”

One related area that Chitambar would like to move more into in the future is quantum cryptography, a set of cybersecurity methods for encrypting and transmitting secure data. This is one application of quantum systems in the space of secure computation that Chitambar hopes to merge with his previous work on quantum entanglement and quantum resource theories.

As their work is theoretical, the Chitambar group doesn’t have a typical research laboratory. But there is still a collaborative spirit within the group and with others on campus, especially experimentalists. “That’s one of the exciting things about being at Illinois, it’s a great place to collaborate and actually see some of these theoretical ideas implanted on real experimental hardware,” he says.

Although there are many challenges to his job, most notably the elusive work-life balance, Chitambar maintains a passion for teaching his students, both the undergraduate students in his classes and those that work within his group. He says, “We’ve got a very good set of students in the group now and it’s fun talking to them, seeing them develop their own research interests and then running with things. The undergrads that I teach are curious and they ask good questions. I’m excited to teach them because they’re passionate about learning.”

If they are interested in the field of quantum information science, Chitambar encourages students to explore what courses are available and take them. At Illinois, Chitamber and several other professors have developed some “awesome” quantum information courses in the ECE department. He says, “We now have developed four quantum-specific courses that will promote the next generation of scientists. I’m a big believer in education and paying it forward.”

While there are many great resources online to dabble in, Chitambar cautions students to be careful because there are also many potentially misleading ones as well. “If possible, I would say find a research professor and engage with them to try and learn more about the field and their work,” he adds.

Outside of the lab, Chitambar is a big family man and enjoys spending time with his wife and two young daughters. Together, they have fun playing games, getting donuts on the weekend and going on adventures. Although he works with complex math every day, Chitambar appreciates going back to the basics. He says, “My third grader is curious about algebra. What is beautiful about mathematics is that it scales. The same principles you use to solve an elementary algebra problem extend up to solve very abstract problems. You can understand it from a completely different level and there is more continuity than you might expect.”

Will quantum information science run in the family? Chitambar says, “I don’t want to force anything on them but it’s natural to share about something you’re excited about. So, I’ll give them the sales pitch and hopefully get them excited about it.”

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This story was published June 5, 2024.