Ebrahim Karimi received his diploma in Mathematics and Physics from Eghbal Lahori (Saghez-Iran) in 1997. He fell in love with physics and mathematics as a high school student while attending several national physics conferences. He received a BSc in Physics with an emphasis in mathematics from Kerman University in 2001. He joined the mathematical physics group for graduate studies at IASBS and was ranked 18th among all incoming students. He later changed his research focus and graduated under the supervision of Prof. Arashmid Nahal with a thesis on “Laser Cooling and Trapping of Natural Atoms” in 2002; Prof. Yousuf Sobouti was his graduate advisor. During that time he also worked on Singular Optics with Prof. Mohammad Taghi Tavassoli and Prof. H. M. Khalesifard. In 2009, he received his PhD degree from the University of Naples “Federico II”, under the supervision of Prof. Lorenzo Marrucci and Prof. Enrico Santamato. He was awarded the best PhD thesis prize for his thesis titled “Light orbital angular momentum and its application on the classical and quantum information“. After his Ph.D., he worked as a postdoctoral fellow under Phorbitech FET project (led by Prof. Lorenzo Marrucci), and in Prof. Robert Boyd’s Quantum Optics group. Prof. Ebrahim Karimi currently holds the Canada Research Chair in the field of Structured Light, and is the group leader of the Structured Quantum Optics (SQO) at the University of Ottawa. He is also an adjunct professor at IASBS-Iran, a visiting professor at Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light at Erlangen-Germany, and is an Associate Editor of Optics Express (The Optical Society-OSA) and New Journal of Physics (IOPscience). Prof. Karimi received several awards, such as Ontario’s Early Researcher Award in 2018, Young Researcher of the year in Faculty of Science in 2018, the University of Ottawa Early Career Researcher of the Year Award 2019, a Fellow of The Optical Society (OSA), a member of the Global Young Academy (GYA), and a Fellow the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light. Applications of structured quantum waves (massive and massless particles) in modern science are the main subject of his research team.
What is your specific area of research? How would you explain it to young children?
⬤ I am a scientist, a quantum physicist and a lifelong learner. I study light and the features of tiny, tiny objects that our universe is made of;by understanding their physical properties, I use them in creating new technological devices and tools. I study quantum physics as my career goal and passion. In quantum mechanics, objects are described using a concept we call “wavefunction”. The wavefunction – although there are still debates about this tells us all the physical properties of a system, which in most cases, determine features that go against our common-sense instincts .
Why did you choose your research field? Were you inspired by someone?
⬤ I have been fascinated by light since I was a kid. It goes back to my childhood time when I was so curious about how the world around me works. My first encounter with the peculiar nature of light was at primary school, where small dark and bright structures (nowadays, I know them as interference fringes) appeared as a surprising phenomenon when I tried to close my thumb and index finger together. At first, I thought that I had a special talent, but later on, I realized that my classmates could also see the same structures. I learnt that light is one of the essential keys for life in the universe and, without light, it is impossible to live on Earth. With simple mirrors and plastic pens, I would create interesting structures at home and play around with the reflection and colour spectrum of light. During high school, I realised that I was good at Maths, Physics, Computer and Chemistry, and spent a lot of time in the physics laboratory, building several devices and setting up optics experiments with a couple of friends. Of course, my high-school teachers and school principal played an important role, and gave me remarkable advice. In the third year of high school, I participated in the national Mathematics olympiad as well as several national students’ physics meetings, and then I decided to study physics/maths at university. Day-by-day, I became more motivated and passionate about science and then learned to solve challenging issues. This has become one of my hobbies, and I am still enjoying it a lot!
How does your life as a top scientist compare with your expectations of it when you enrolled in Physics?
⬤ Well, to be honest, due to the political situation of my family, I did not expect to be enrolled in university. First of all, it was impossible to pursue higher education as a Kurd in Iran during the 80s. The political situation has, later on, changed positively in 1994, and I had a chance to study a BSc programme and then an MSc, while my status was on hold for several semesters to get a security clearance. Now that I am looking at the past, it is much better than I could imagine. I am very fortunate and grateful for the chance to work on subjects I like and collaborate with renowned scientists.
What traits might a child possess that may indicate an interest or aptitude for your research field?
⬤ Curiosity, passion, and perseverance! These are the key factors to learn and develop science. Wonder is the key that turns curiosity on, and of course one should be loving what they do, and tireless in the pursuit of accomplishment. Parents and teachers should encourage curiosity and teach kids from a young age to think, ask questions and seek the answers.
What are you currently working on and what is your long-term research goal?
⬤ My research group is a part of a team aiming to build a new kind of internet which makes it impossible to hack, i.e. no one can hack and eavesdrop on our sensitive messages and information. In addition, we work on developing a new type of microscope (quantum microscope) that allows us to see very fast dynamics (motion) of tiny objects in the world, such as molecules and atoms. This allows scientists to learn about the features of complex molecules, and thus could also help us understand complex mechanisms inside living cells, which would be useful to control diseases.
Do you have an analogy to help our readers to understand your work?
⬤ Methods that we currently use to share our data securely are based on solving very hard mathematical problems. Problems that take many years (or even centuries) to solve with ‘standard’ computers. However, this is going to change soon with quantum computers – solving these mathematical problems that guarantee the security of our messages will take a fraction of a second, and thus making our communication methods insecure. We use the laws of quantum physics to protect information and in particular secure a communication network. That is why we need a new way to encrypt/decrypt messages.
What is it that excites you about your work?
⬤ I find nothing more exciting than learning new things every day; this can be a mathematical formula, a new concept, or learning how to tackle and solve a problem. You may find me spending hours and hours on finding new tie knots, playing with strings, drawing figures and writing code, and staying with my students in the lab until 4:00 am. When we start a new work, I become so excited and eager to learn that it keeps me up for several days. Those problems/issues, at first are just simple curiosities and mysteries, but after efforts and brainstorming, we can turn them into technological advances. I am excited by things that can help me nourish my curiosity and find solutions or better solutions for problems that are hard to solve. I find it very fulfilling to help young students to flourish, to grow and to become highly skilled, so they can move on to their next career stage with confidence and push the border of science and technology.
Why is your research important?
⬤ Safety, security and health are three main concerns of humanity. My research team’s activity aims to improve on these three societal goals. Keeping our information -e.g., phone calls, emails, online banking activities and so on- secure is extremely important, and leaking this information will place us in danger. This data must be kept secret and private for a very long time and, in some cases, forever. This information used to be safe in theory in the past, but that is about to change. The advent of quantum computers will make it possible to hack and read this data and have access to it. One of our goals is to find novel schemes to communicate data in such a way that is impossible to hack – secure information communication is one of my research interests. We are also interested to learn the physics, including the structure and dynamics, of biological cells, and their responses to the environment. We usually use light to see these small objects, but this approach has its limits. We are aiming to develop a quantum microscope which can probe deeper into these features without affecting the living cells mechanism.
Is there a story/anecdote about your work that you would like to share with us?
⬤ I recall that three of my friends and I spent several weeks trying to see Young’s double-slit experiment in the Egbal-Lahori high-school laboratory, but unfortunately with no success (Young’s double-slit experiment or simply the double-slit experiment was first performed by Thomas Young in 1801, and shows the wave behaviour of light). Later on, I learnt that we did not understand the concept of spatial coherence, and our source (a tungsten lamp with a red-colour filter) was not coherent enough to observe clear interference.
Would you like to mention one or more of your most important scientific findings?
⬤ There are several projects that I learnt new concepts from which I really love. However, since the readers are from the optics community, I will pick the one which got published in Optica and was highlighted by OSA in 2016. My team showed for the first time that optical beams with twisted wavefronts, like pasta fusilli, experience a (group) velocity that is smaller than the speed of light in vacuum. This finding, of course, does not violate the theory of relativity, which tells us that the speed of light in free-space (vacuum) is constant, but tells us that the spatial truncation will cause an optical beam to have different group velocities, smaller or greater than c.
What is it that you like to do when you aren’t working on research?
⬤ I love solving puzzles and reading mathematics books. Sport-wise, I love playing soccer with my friends, which I used to play twice per week before the COVID-19 pandemic. I was professionally playing soccer in the past.
Is there enough support/funding for science in Europe today? What could be improved in this respect, at a national level? And at European level?
⬤ Compared to other funding opportunities, the support put towards research in fundamental science is negligible. The research we do today will be used and needed in the future, and investing now will guarantee your technological achievements in the upcoming century. Thus, we need to fund more science and research groups in order to ensure humanity prospers in safety in the years to come. Science is the only way to fight global challenges such as climate change, energy needs, and saving our planet (e.g. solving issues that mankind have made, such as plastics in the oceans).
Are there gender differences in your research environment and what are current opportunities and challenges for women in science?
⬤ Well, despite our best efforts, unfortunately, we see some gender gap in the STEM fields. There are many opportunities for women in STEM, and we are strongly encouraging them to consider STEM majors as their field of study at the graduate level. I have several female students in my group and they are among the best students and most successful I ever worked with.
What inspirational message would you give young girls to inspire them to pursue a career in science?
⬤ Science is just fantastic – you will find answers to most of the questions that you would have about the universe, mother nature, as well as technologies. It gives you vision and the ability to see the world from a different perspective that is just wonderful and you would love forever. The world of science needs you – it needs smart, creative and talented young people.
Now for the big picture: what is your assessment of the current state of your area of research? (i.e. where do you see it going, what expectations for the future, etc.)
⬤ I have no doubt that photonics will be the turning point in technology in the current century. Indeed, this has started during the 20th century with the innovation of optical fibres, optical communication, solar cells, CCD cameras and many others to be named. Security and safety, as well as health, are the current concern and challenge, and clearly, optics and photonics have strong potential to address these tasks. I do foresee a quantum network in the near future, i.e., a communication platform based on the laws of quantum physics. We will have a worldwide quantum secure internet which will keep our online data and communication safe in the age of quantum computing. Very smart people dedicated their time to research in quantum technologies and are working hard to bring these new technologies to everyday life. Quantum technologies offer unprecedented levels of accuracy unmatched with any other technologies we have seen before.
Is there anything else you would like to add? (e.g. about how science is presented to the wider public, about expectations about science attached to public funding, etc.)
⬤ Science has been our light and the ultimate force for good. Without investing in science, our future is jeopardized with too many unknowns and major challenges. Challenges like climate change which if not addressed, can make life on Earth very difficult. Current events like the COVID-19 pandemic have shown us all how important it is to have our research schools and facilities well-funded and equipped. Scientists should have the resources they need to be able to create solutions for our most pressing problems and challenges. Investing in education and research is key to a better future for humanity.