Suchitra Sebastian’s career may seem eclectic at first glance. Starting out with an MBA and then working in management consulting, she switched gears for a deep dive into studying physics. Far from a scientific dilettante, Sebastian focused on quantum materials, which are on the bleeding edge of what we understand about the universe and what may yet be possible.
“I love the unexpected physics of quantum materials,” Sebastian says. “The novel collective quantum phenomena that emerge from colliding and entangling electrons are nothing like those of individual electrons. Every day in the lab is an adventure—I have no idea what we’re going to find. I love exploring the interstitials—the regions in between—where a kind of quantum alchemy occurs. In my research, for instance, we’ve made magnets transform into superconductors by squeezing them between the tips of diamond anvils.”
If that wasn’t exotic enough, Sebastian added a new frontier of exploration as she immersed herself in the arts. She recently cofounded a new theater company and performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. How does she navigate the boundaries of art and science?
“I think the notion of compartmentalization into science and humanities and arts is misguided. We look out at the world and marvel, we yearn to discover because we are human, and at the heart of our humanity is our curiosity. We seek to explore the world and to know our place in it through all possible ways. Experimenting as a scientist and experimenting as an artist are deeply interrelated activities, and I seek to explore in every possible way; any one way of knowing would be incomplete.”
Still, she’s aware that managing her varied interests can seem daunting to friends and colleagues. “I joke when people ask me how I manage to find a balance that I don’t know how to be balanced. Instead, I careen wildly from one type of intense activity to another—this is my idea of balance.” Sebastian also balances the scientific drive for pure discovery with an interest in concrete applications. “Technological advance is desirable if it contributes to the core of what makes us human, rather than overriding it. Progress towards applications is just one outcome of our scientific curiosity, rather than the ultimate aim.”
Sebastian’s sense of intellectual adventure and curiosity are what keep her pushing at those boundaries. “I need to be just a little terrified of taking that step off the cliff edge into the unknown to truly discover what lies beyond,” she says. “My passion is to seek the unknown. . . . Every performance is new and different, and so is every physics experiment.”