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At age 30, Michelle Lollie, APS Bridge Program graduate, abandoned her career in finance and leapt into physics.
By Sophia Chen | October 13, 2022
Michelle Lollie worked in banking for years before going back to school for physics. She received her doctorate from Louisiana State University in March 2022.
In 2010, Michelle Lollie — then a disillusioned 28-year-old banker in Michigan — read a paper on quantum teleportation and decided to become a physicist.
“To this day, I cannot remember why that paper crossed my field of view,” says Lollie.
But starting over, as a non-traditional student, would be an uphill journey. Lollie enrolled at Indiana’s Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology for her second bachelor’s degree, this time in physics instead of finance. She had to fill in the gaps — computer programming, linear algebra, vector calculus — sometimes retaking classes multiple times. “I had a ton of insecurities,” she says.
But bruised ego or not, Lollie had tenacity. After earning her degree from Rose-Hulman, she set her sights on graduate school. She got accepted to Indiana University through APS’s Bridge Program, which helps underrepresented students of color pursue PhDs, and later transferred to Louisiana State University. “The Bridge program provided that foundation to help me get my footing, whether it was additional academic help or research,” says Lollie.
This March, Lollie became the first Black woman to receive her Ph.D. from LSU’s physics and astronomy department, although one more has graduated since, with three more in the pipeline, she says. This August, Lollie began work at Quantinuum, Honeywell’s quantum computing spinoff. Outside of physics, she recently picked up the violin and has a burgeoning whiskey collection. She spoke with APS News about her nontraditional path into physics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You're from Southfield, Michigan. What was it like growing up there?
I grew up in this white picket fence neighborhood, one mile outside of Detroit, so it was a pseudo-suburb with a city feel. Most of my family members went to the same public schools. I ended up going to a private all-girls’ Catholic high school, where they bussed in students from Detroit, and it was pretty diverse.
You studied finance as an undergrad and had a career in banking before returning to school to pursue physics at age 30. How did that play out?
A lot of my family has degrees in finance — my older brother, and many of my cousins. In high school, I envisioned myself on Wall Street in one of those $50,000 suits. But in college, I heard stories from friends after internships about how cutthroat it was, where they’d get pitted against other interns to produce results. I didn’t want to be the type of person I needed to become to succeed in that environment.
But it was too late to change my major. So after graduation, I went into retail banking in Atlanta, where I went to college. After a few years of that, I found myself complacent in my job, so I went home to Michigan to regroup in 2009.
During that time, I saw this physics paper. To this day, I have no idea how I came across it. It was a seminal paper in quantum information theory by Bennett and Brassard on quantum teleportation. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to study it. The paper mentioned entanglement, and I figured out that meant I should study physics. The rest is history.
You attended Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana to get your second bachelor’s. Were you ever intimidated to start over?
Rose kicked my butt. I don’t want people to think this was an easy route. I had taken calculus in community college to prepare, but I hadn’t ever done computer programming, and I didn’t know about combinatorics, linear algebra, or all sorts of math until I got there.
But whether you want to be spiritual or practical about it, some things are just meant to be. I knew this is what I wanted to study. There was no quitting. If I failed a class, I would say to myself, “Okay, I’ll take it again next quarter.” It was like a train coming down the tracks, and it wasn’t going to stop — I had to get those next tracks laid down.
What kept you motivated?
The haters. It’s cliché, but it’s true. At Rose, I remember I was frustrated because I was working hard and was like, “Why can’t I get this stuff?” One professor said, “Maybe you have a learning disability.” His first thought when he had a struggling student was that something must be wrong with me, rather than his teaching.
I would fail these classes, and I remember thinking, “I'm stupid.” But I realized a lot of the students at Rose had seen and studied this math in high school. A lot of their parents were educators, engineers, or scientists. I did not have the preparation that they had. Once I recognized that I just wasn't dealt a fair hand, that kept me motivated. And I had teachers who really personally invested in me.
In graduate school at Indiana University, one of my mentors was Garfield Warren, and you would see him literally on the floor with students going over problems. He would give students the confidence that they could learn.
You’ve mentioned your grandmother’s influence on your life in other interviews. Can you tell me more about her?
My grandmother is sharp as a tack. She was born in 1928, and she grew up picking cotton in Mississippi. That was the only job she could find, pricking her hands on the plants in the heat of the day for little payment. I tell this to show that this is a modern story, not ancient history. My grandfather had an industrial job in Mississippi, and the two of them had to save up together to move to Detroit in the 1940s.
As I get older, I appreciate more what my grandmother had to go through. My grandmother didn't get a college education, while my mother has two degrees. If I couldn't find myself doing my degree for myself, I would think about my mother and my grandmother.
My grandmother attended my Ph.D. graduation this year. After I got my diploma, I just handed it to her. It was an honor to be able to show her that her life means more than perhaps she had thought.
What research did you do for your Ph.D.?
My research was mainly experiments in quantum communication with photons. I was studying a particular intrinsic property of light called orbital angular momentum. This property imparts a twist to the light that we studied via the light beam’s spatial profile.
You can store information in this twisting of the light. We wanted to use orbital angular momentum to build an encryption protocol to send a secret message between two parties, Alice and Bob, through a special fiber. But as light travels through this fiber, its spatial profile gets distorted, and it appears to lose information. My goal was to see if we could use machine learning to match a distorted beam with a clean, original version, and in that way, retrieve the lost message. Through our experiments, we found that the protocol could determine the original message from the distorted beams with 99% accuracy.
Credit: Eric Rudd, Indiana University
Michelle Lollie as a graduate student at Indiana University, beforel transferring to LSU.
While in grad school, you also served as an advocate for students. What kind of work did you do?
I took the qualifying exam five times. I had to study, stress, and fail four times, and on the fifth time, I passed it, and way above the threshold required for the Ph.D. During this, I was also advocating against the qualifying exam along with several other students and faculty. A 2019 study showed that graduate entrance exams like the GRE don’t correlate strongly with Ph.D. completion and limit access to underrepresented groups, and researchers are currently studying how qualifying exams might affect disparities among students. We got the faculty to vote on getting rid of it. It didn’t pass, but we heard that it was a close vote.
We had several town halls where we, the students, worked together with the faculty. Now, at LSU, you still have to take the qualifying exam, but they are considering alternatives that emphasize research accomplishments for students who take it and don't pass.
Looking back, what’s a piece of advice you would give your younger self?
People, no matter where they are in their careers, need to advocate for themselves. If you’re afraid, advocate anyway, because otherwise no one else will. Some people say, wait until you graduate and get a professorship or a job, and then your voice will have weight. But I always say, I want my equity now.
Sophia Chen is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio.
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