Cold Atoms and Cross-Country Running: Exploring the Dynamics of Many-Body Systems

Newton’s principle of reaction and action dictates that an equal and opposing response accompanies any action. Running, a fundamental physical activity, involves exerting force against the ground counter to the sprinter’s direction.

Senior Olivia Rosenstein’s involvement in cross-country serves as a driving force for her academic pursuits as an experimental physicist focused on 2D materials, optics, and computational cosmology.

Rosenstein, collaborating with Professor Richard Fletcher in the Emergent Quantum Matter Group at MIT as an undergraduate researcher, contributes to constructing an erbium-lithium trap for studying many-body physics and quantum simulation. The group concentrated on enhancing the trap’s erbium atom count, reducing their temperature, and planning the upcoming experimental phases throughout the fall.

In her endeavors, Rosenstein has been crucial in analyzing the magnetic field behavior of the equipment, conducting atom imaging, and advancing the development of infrared (IR) optics for the upcoming laser cooling stages currently underway in the group’s research.

As she nears the end of her MIT journey, Rosenstein identifies her participation in the MIT Cross Country team as pivotal in balancing her academic and research responsibilities.

“Running plays a vital role in my life,” she shares. “It provides me joy and peace, and my functionality significantly diminishes without it.”


Rosenstein’s parents, a special education professor and a university global education programs director, encouraged her to explore various subjects, including mathematics and science. Her early engagement with STEM included activities with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Engineering Outreach Society, where engineering students conduct sessions at local elementary schools.

During her time at Urbana High School, she excelled as a cross-country and track athlete, serving as a three-year varsity cross-country captain and a five-time Illinois All-State athlete. Her biology Advanced Placement teacher, who also coached her, introduced her to the biological processes driving aerobic adaptation and athletes’ training routines.

While considering college majors, her interest initially leaned towards biology and physiology. She initially doubted her readiness for MIT, perceiving it as a place marked by overwhelming stress, intense competition, and excessive academic demands.

“I presumed everyone at MIT was extremely stressed, highly competitive, and overwhelmed by assignments, proposals, and research projects,” she recalls. However, after interacting with current MIT students, her perspective shifted.

“MIT students are dedicated not out of pressure but thanks to the thrill of solving intricate problem set challenges or being engrossed in a lab experiment. We invest substantial time in our living communities, dance groups, music ensembles, sports, activism, and various other pursuits. Through interactions with future cross-country teammates as a prospective student, I realized the genuine enjoyment of quality time spent among individuals here.”

Attraction to Physics

Starting as a freshman aiming for Course 20, her enthusiasm shifted to class 8.022 (Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism) following an engaging experience with Professor Daniel Harlow.

“I recall an instance when he systematically led us to a conclusion, subsequently uncovering theory inconsistencies. He explained that we required the knowledge of relativity and advanced physics to comprehend it fully, hinting that we should pursue these courses, potentially some graduate classes, before revisiting the matter satisfied,” she remembers.

Comparing the curricular requirements of bioengineering and physics led her to favor physics courses. Additionally, her remote learning period emphasized hands-on activities as her preferred approach.

“I noticed my highest contentment when some of my tasks involved practical applications,” she reflects.

During the summer before her sophomore year, she gained experience at the University of Illinois in Urbana in Professor Brian DeMarco’s lab. The research focused on constructing a trapped ion quantum computing system, highlighting the practical utilization of physics principles.

Subsequent roles included stints in Fletcher’s group, a MISTI internship in France at the condensed matter lab of researcher Rebeca Ribeiro-Palau, and a project under the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program collaborating with Professor Mark Vogelsberger’s team at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. This project involved reviewing the evolution of galaxies and dark matter halos using self-interacting dark-matter simulations.

By her junior year’s spring, her focus shifted to atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) experiments during class 8.14 (Experimental Physics II), part of the Junior Lab curriculum.

“The intriguing aspect of experimental AMO is exploring captivating physics concepts like quantum superposition, manipulating atoms with light, and uncovering uncharted theoretical phenomena while constructing tangible, real-world systems,” she explains. “Witnessing the successful creation of a magneto-optical trap (MOT) is exhilarating, revealing quantum mechanics in action and marking the initial step towards sophisticated atom manipulations. Current AMO research affords us opportunities to examine unprecedented phenomena, enhancing our understanding of atomic interactions at a foundational level.”

For their exploratory project, Rosenstein and her lab partner, Nicolas Tanaka, embarked on building a MOT for rubidium utilizing JLab’s ColdQuanta MiniMOT kit and employing laser locking through modulation transfer spectroscopy. Their project presentation at the department’s poster session garnered them the prestigious Edward C. Pickering Award for Outstanding Original Project.

“We sought to gain exposure to optics and electronics and establish an experimental setup benefitting future students,” she explains. “Our dedication was evident as at least one of us was in the lab almost every available hour during the last two weeks of class. Witnessing the emergence of a rubidium cloud on our IR TV screen evoked feelings of thrill, pride, and relief. Building the MOT sparked my passion, envisioning myself engaged in similar inventive projects long into the future.”

She expresses, “I derive pleasure from cosmic inquiries but find immense joy in the lab environment, employing hands-on skills. While some may find optical assembly tedious, I liken it to playing with Legos, engrossing myself in achieving precise mirror alignments and tuning out external distractions for an immersive experience.”

As a senior, Rosenstein aims to amass experience in experimental optics and cold atoms, priming herself for future PhD endeavors. She aspires to merge her enthusiasm for significant physics questions with AMO experiments, potentially engaging in fundamental physics examinations through precision measurements or probing many-body physics.

Simultaneously, she concludes her cosmology research, completing a partnership initiative with Katelin Schutz at McGill University. Their collaborative endeavor involves testing a model to interpret 21-centimeter radio wave signals from the universe’s initial stages, facilitating future observations with telescopes. Their aim is to assess the effectiveness of an effective field theory (EFT) model in predicting 21cm fields given limited data.

She elucidates, “We applied an EFT initially designed for extensive simulations to a series of smaller simulations, but it proved ineffective. Our current task is figuring out the requisite data volume for the model’s functionality, demanding intensive data analysis to discern significant trends.”

Highlighting the significance of their findings in the context of the universe’s narrative, she remarks, “Realizing the correlation between our observations and the universe’s storyline is incredibly rewarding. The tools we’re developing hold promise for astronomers, potentially unlocking further cosmic insights.”

Running Through Challenges

Rosenstein attributes her cross-country engagement to navigating the pandemic’s disruptions, which postponed her physical presence on MIT’s campus until spring 2021.

“Team activities constituted my primary social interactions,” she notes. “Although we missed out on competitive events, achieving a personal milestone with my fastest mile time during a time trial provided a sense of accomplishment.”

In her sophomore year, she secured the 38th spot nationally, earning recognition as a National Collegiate Athletic Association All-American in her inaugural collegiate cross-country season. A setback due to a stress fracture temporarily sidelined her until her impressive 12th-place finish as an NCAA DIII All-American athlete. During this phase, while the women’s team achieved a commendable seventh place overall and the men’s team secured MIT’s first NCAA national title, another injury intervened. Despite the setback, she continued contributing as a team captain, supporting first-year students and remaining actively involved through cycling and swimming to sustain her fitness levels. She harbors aspirations of keeping running a central element in her life.

“Both running and physics entail enduring delayed gratification: exceptional performance isn’t an everyday occurrence, and groundbreaking discoveries don’t emerge frequently. There might be prolonged periods without notable progress. Adapting to such phases is imperative to thrive as a runner and a physicist,” she states.

She adds, “While it might seem like runners and physicists consistently endure to reach their goals, the reality differs. Running offers a daily opportunity to connect with friends, fostering personal downtime away from academic pursuits. Similarly, aligning optics, debugging code, and unraveling complex problems doesn’t equate to consistent suffering but rather satisfying endeavors on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.”

Leveraging a combination of optimistic outlooks and critical scrutiny, she concludes, “Both running and physics demand a balance of naive optimism and thorough skepticism. Believing in one’s capabilities is essential for success, combined with a realistic assessment of the required effort. Progress in running and physics is an incremental journey, culminating in significant accomplishments, with every small stride worthy of acknowledgment.”

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