Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2014

Cindy Regal

Assistant Professor Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder

Measuring Micromechanical Motion at Quantum Limits and Identifying Successful Attributes of Undergraduate Research

Regal is exploring ways to avoid the rapidly approaching time when interferometers will be confronted by accuracy limits imposed by quantum mechanics.

Interferometery is a branch of measurement in which electromagnetic waves can be superimposed in order to extract information about the motion of objects. Interferometers are used in everything from the ongoing search for gravitational waves, to microscopy at the atomic scale.

Interferometers can be limited by what is known as the Standard Quantum Limit (SQL), which is a byproduct of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It entails “backaction” on the quantum scale: for every measurement – even those made with something as seemingly insubstantial as light -- there is a perturbation of the object being measured. Backaction enforces the SQL, which is the theoretical limit on the precision of quantum measurements with typical interferometers.

Regal is focused on a new and promising direction in interferometery to circumvent measurement challenges as instrument sensitivity approaches the SQL. Her work uses low-mass, high-frequency mechanical drums that can vibrate on their own for a surprisingly long time.

The interferometers Regal works with are tiny devices chilled to nearly absolute zero, giving rise to an extremely noise-free environment. They can detect incredibly weak mechanical vibrations while – it is hoped – barely perturbing them. The measurements flow into a data stream that is amplified by an optical cavity, or resonator, giving rise to exquisite sensitivity.

If successful, her work could lead to advances in ultra-high resolution microscopy.

The Cottrell Scholars Award will also fund Regal’s efforts as a teacher by further enabling her to involve undergraduate students in her research. She will also use the funds to study what factors make for a successful undergraduate research experience.

Return to list