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ECE department welcomes Associate Professor Thomas Searles

Thomas Searles

Thomas A. Searles, PhD, joined the ECE department on July 1 as an associate professor through the University of Illinois System Distinguished Faculty Recruitment Program. Started in 2018, the program aims to attract highly accomplished and promising faculty from a range of disciplines.

Searles’ research is in the area of quantum information science and engineering, including light-matter interactions, quantum optics, terahertz spectroscopy, quantum materials, and metamaterials.

“Dr. Searles will provide a much-needed expertise to UIC that bridges the fields of physics and solid-state device and materials engineering,” said Daniela Tuninetti, ECE interim department head. “His work on metamaterials and quantum computing positions him at the forefront of research in advanced technologies that hold the potential to revolutionize all aspects of our lives.”

Searles received his PhD in applied physics from Rice University and holds a BS in mathematics and physics from Morehouse College. For the last six years, he was an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Howard University and recently was promoted to associate professor. He also was the Martin Luther King Visiting Professor in the department of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the 2020-2021 school year. Searles began his teaching career at Morehouse College and has completed two other visiting faculty appointments, at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“I’m excited to be at UIC and join the esteemed faculty,” Searles said. “Chicago has established itself over the past five years or so as the hotbed for quantum information, and I wanted to be here to help build the quantum information science and engineering efforts at UIC.”

Searles has received more than $12 million in research funding from the National Science Foundation, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, American Physical Society, Department of Defense, and others. He also has performed experiments at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Naval Research Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology, UCSB Free Electron Laser Facility, National Institute of Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan, and Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.

Searles said he will continue his work with several existing partners: the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center he built at Howard University; an ongoing NASA project with the Goddard Space Center, Tulane University, and Army Research Lab; and projects with students from Morehouse College and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Searles says he hopes to encourage students to go into engineering physics at UIC and to find opportunities in the burgeoning field of quantum engineering.

“For engineering physics, the opportunity is golden, especially in the next five to 10 years in a place like Chicago where there is a huge push to build a brand-new quantum industry,” Searles said. “We need people who are deeper into the physics of quantum mechanics applying these principles to engineering problems, but also to the most important problem: quantum computing.”

Searles said engineering physics courses should be more widely available, as these concepts are used in classical computing networks and essential in quantum computing. Searles hopes to offer an experimental quantum photonics course or photonics lab at UIC in the near future.

Searles said his interest in science began as a child, when he wanted to become an astronaut. He was inspired by Ronald McNair, a NASA astronaut and physicist. Searles hasn’t given up that dream—yet.

“In 2011 I applied to be an astronaut and made it to the second round. It’s always on my radar. I’m 38, so I still have a chance to go into space at some point. But that’s what really sparked my interest in science and engineering.”