Di Xiao Featured Mellon College of Science Website

  • By Burcu Ozden
  • 1 May 2018

"After almost a century, I think physicists understand a lot of quantum mechanics, but we haven't really explored the usefulness of quantum mechanics," Carnegie Mellon University Professor of Physics Di Xiao said. His research in the past five years has aimed to change that.

"Now I think we're at a new age — a quantum age," Xiao said.

Broadly, Xiao seeks to understand what determines the properties of materials. This is a simple question with a lot of complexity behind it. For example, mercury and gold are neighbors on the periodic table and looking at their individual atoms closely shows very similar-looking particles. 

It had always been regarded as a really cute, elegant concept that probably doesn't have many physical consequences," Xiao said of his area of research. However, the field began to quickly take off as he worked toward his Ph.D. because physicists began to realize how important these concepts could be in dictating the properties of materials. 

"Maybe just purely by luck I ended up doing what I'm doing," Xiao joked.

Following his postdoctoral work, Xiao took a job at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. While working there was exciting and offered many opportunities, he eventually felt like his work lacked something.

"I kind of just missed the feeling of being on a campus," Xiao said, and interacting with students in particular. In 2012, he came to Carnegie Mellon, a school that he'd heard was not too small and not too large with a strong focus on interdisciplinary research. He has no regrets since settling in Pittsburgh with his wife and two children, Ella, age 7, and Max, age 2.

I used to have hobbies," Xiao joked. "Now I just play with my kids." 

Outside of his research and parenting, Xiao has worked to improve the teaching of physics, especially to undergraduate students. For several years, he has run an exchange program between Carnegie Mellon's Department of Physics and the University of Science and Technology of China. Each summer, the universities trade undergraduate students for two months to encourage international collaboration and personal growth.

Two years ago, Xiao was named a Cottrell Scholar, an honor that came with $100,000 to support the work of the nation's top educators.

Xiao is using some of this money to develop a new tool that helps students understand the complex topics behind solid state physics through computer simulations. While visualizations have long been used to teach and understand physics concepts, Xiao said, this tool will allow undergraduate students to work to answer their own questions and experiments. 

"Instead of giving them a program, I want to give the student a code," Xiao said. "They can modify the code and they can have a full control of it."

Written by Ben Panko

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