New physicist hits the ground running

Physicist Jennifer Hoffman. Source: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications.

Jenny Hoffman ran almost five consecutive marathons in one day last September. The epic 203-kilometre day garnered her the 2014 National Championship in USA Track and Field’s 24-Hour Run, a gruelling endurance challenge.

Now, the ultra-marathoner and Harvard University professor joins UBC as its newest Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC). The federally-funded CERC program is designed to attract top researchers to Canada from around the world, with the aim of strengthening scientific research.

When she’s not running along the seawall or through the trails of Pacific Spirit Park, the physicist will be developing new quantum materials. These new materials are not yet well understood but they offer useful electronic and magnetic properties that are expected to revolutionize energy technologies, computing and medical equipment.

UBC a leader in quantum materials research

Quantum materials include superconductors; materials that can transport electricity across enormous distances and store for long periods of time without losing any energy.  UBC has already established itself as an internationally-recognized leader in this field of research and has an established team of experts working in the field.

Hoffman joins a team of star-studded quantum physicists led by Andrea Damascelli, a professor with the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Thirteen professors at UBC, plus their students, technicians and postdoctoral fellows, are working to unravel the mysteries of quantum materials.

“I wanted to come here because of the people,” said Hoffman. “It’s a group who can examine the physical properties of quantum materials, study their theoretical underpinnings, and build devices out of these materials.”

The team currently spends much of its time characterizing exotic new materials to better understand how they work. Damascelli and several other UBC researchers worked with Hoffman on a paper published in Science in 2014 that revealed the possible secret to high-temperature superconductivity.
In her new position, Hoffman will focus on building new materials.  She will be making quantum materials using 3D printing at the atomic scale, building new materials atom by atom. Her ideas for making materials helped her secure the prestigious CERC position, which includes $10 million in federal funding for her research program.

UBC’s brain gain

When Hoffman was at Harvard, she created a list of the top ten schools she would like to join.  She wanted a highly-collaborative research environment to continue her quantum physics work, plus a nice place for running. UBC was the only Canadian school on the list.
One chilly week in November 2013, Hoffman found herself in Vancouver for a speaking event. In the hall, she passed Douglas Bonn, head of UBC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy at the time, and asked if he’d join her for a run the next morning.  She didn’t know of any job openings at UBC but thought this might be her best chance.

The next morning it was so cold and so icy that Bonn almost couldn’t make the bike ride to meet Hoffman on the seawall. Luckily, he did because Hoffman asked if Bonn had a job for her.  Bonn explained that the department was looking for someone who could make quantum materials.

“I told him, ‘I am that person. I build materials now too’,” said Hoffman. When she got home, she immediately sent him her recently submitted grant proposals.

“Until now I was always waiting for someone else to discover the new materials but now I want to be the one making the materials,” she said. “I’m right on the cusp of a big shift in my research.”

It wasn’t long before she was back in Vancouver, interviewing for the position and was offered the opportunity to become UBC’s CERC in Quantum Materials and Devices Based on Oxide Heterostructures.

Hoffman comes to UBC

Hoffman’s arrival in Vancouver will be a coup for both her research colleagues and UBC students. While she holds a senior research position, she’ll also be teaching first-year physics.

“I like teaching beginners. It’s an opportunity to recruit young people and really get them excited about physics.”

While Hoffman has been busy with her research, her husband, who is also a physicist, took a break from his work to spend more time at home with their two sons and daughter.  Now that their kids are a bit older, Hoffman’s husband is eager to continue his own research.

Between juggling research, teaching, training for races and three kids, it’s amazing the couple can keep up, let alone lead the pack.  Their trick is to get up very early and go for their runs before their kids are awake, and to make sure the whole family packs it in at the same time and goes to bed early.  Hoffman says running also helps keep her focused at work.

“I’m a much more productive scientist when I can periodically back my mind off a bit,” she said, outlining a philosophy that rings true for running and science. 

“You can’t be going full speed all the time, but you have to be ready to sprint when the opportunity arises.”

“Until now I was always waiting for someone else to discover the new materials but now I want to be the one making the materials.”

Alex Walls
Media Relations Specialist, UBC Media Relations