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Clarice Aiello: Finding quantum gold in diamond’s defect

Clarice Aiello
Clarice Aiello

The kind of diamond Clarice Aiello values does not come in a dazzling pear or square cut, swaddled in black velvet on a counter at Tiffany’s. Instead, it exists as a millimeter-sized chunk on a sturdy table in a lab she built. What’s more, Aiello is not searching for perfection in her rock, but imperfection of a remarkable kind: a naturally occurring defect in the diamond’s lattice that, if manipulated properly, gives rise to quantum phenomena.

It is the mind-bending field of quantum mechanics that Brazilian-born Aiello has “wanted to understand more than any other thing.” A fifth-year nuclear science and engineering (NSE) graduate student, she developed an early fascination with the field after reading Richard Feynman’s classic Caltech lectures as a freshman in college. In spite of a professed weakness in math, she pursued this branch of physics through an international education that included the Ecole Polytechnique and the University of Cambridge.

Today, Aiello is exploring new dimensions of quantum mechanics through a research project with NSE Professor Paola Cappellaro. In 2009, they set out to investigate and exploit the so-called Nitrogen-Vacancy center defect in diamond (N-V center), a routine anomaly where a vacancy is adjacent to a substitutional nitrogen atom in the carbon lattice.

“We started with nothing but an empty room and had to fill it with machines, screws, all the components that make our experiments possible,” Aiello says. Creating the lab was both arduous and gratifying, she says. “I’m not scared of building things from scratch anymore, but it takes a ... long time.”

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