What do next generation computing and innovative approaches to understanding the physics of disease have in common? Dr. Daniel Erenso, an Assistant Professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), is posing many questions like this one and seeking answers as he pursues dual research programs in these two areas.
Originally trained as a theoretical physicist, Erenso has developed an experimental program that enables him to "grasp" individual cells with a laser beam. With this laser "tweezer" he is studying the morphology and elasticity of human red and white blood cells by measuring their responses to linear and rotational deformations. Abnormalities in red blood cell shapes or flexibility can affect cell function and result in cardiovascular or immune system diseases such as sickle cell anemia, stroke and HIV/AIDS. Strokes alone account for 160,000 deaths and $62.4 billion in health care costs per year in the United States.
Following a visit of eight representatives from Oak Ridge National Laboratory's (ORNL) Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate and Biological and Environmental Sciences Directorate to MTSU last fall, Erenso was invited to present a research seminar to the Quantum Computing group at ORNL. This dialog, coupled with his interest in quantum computing from his graduate work at the University of Arkansas, resulted in Erenso spending the summer in Oak Ridge working on problems in quantum optics.
A practical application of quantum mechanics, quantum optics examines the properties of photons (particles of light) interacting with submicron-size systems. The process of converting a single photon into two lower energy photons can leave them in an entangled state wherein one of the photons can no longer be adequately described without reference to the other and a quantum state change in one results in an immediate change in the state of the other, even though they may be spatially separated. This entanglement leads to correlations between observable physical properties of remote systems. This quantum entanglement process offers promise for the realization of quantum computers, which are expected to be exponentially faster than today's fastest computers. Additionally, this process has implications for quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation, which could allow completely secure information transmission and exchange.
MTSU educates the largest population of undergraduate students of any university in the state and, appropriately, hands-on learning experiences and a research-rich environment receive a strong emphasis throughout the university. Three of the thirteen MTSU undergraduate research interns placed at ORNL last summer were working as an NSF-supported team with Erenso. Funding support of undergraduate research includes a recurring budget line-item of $127,000 and another $500,000 in externally-supported undergraduate research experiences at MTSU this fiscal year.
Erenso and colleagues in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science are laying the research foundation for newly proposed Ph.D.s in Molecular Biosciences and Computational Science. Another interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Mathematics and Science Education is in the review process. Currently, MTSU has the 2nd largest population of graduate students in the TBR system and growth is expected to continue as more degree programs are added.