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Alumni Profile: Eckerd Leads Aaron O'Connell '05 to Quantum Mechanics to Wall Street to TED

posted on 04/01/2011

by Mary Ellen Collins

Aaron O'Connell graduated from Eckerd in 2005 with a B.S. and double major in Physics and Mathematics. In 2010, his quantum mechanics research was voted as the 2010 Breakthrough of the Year by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Aaron O'Connell marched to his own beat from an early age. He claims he had no firm career aspirations as a kid, and even told a high school guidance that he wanted to be "a bum." He left high school in Pennsylvania halfway through his senior year, got on a bus and moved to Ft. Lauderdale on his own. After living with cousin and hanging out listening to music for a few months, he finished his studies at a local high school. While working as an Office Depot stock boy, the reality of his situation soon prompted him to chart a new course.

"I remember walking down the street after I'd gotten the job - I had to walk two miles to work because someone had stolen my bike. I was trapped in Florida. I didn't have money, a car, or very many friends. This restricted mobility got me thinking. Living with restricted resources made me very driven not to get back into that situation."

He and his girlfriend applied to Eckerd College, where he majored in physics and math even though that wasn't his first choice. "I wanted to do physics and chemistry, but my girlfriend was doing chemistry and she didn't want me to be in her classes. I just wanted to pick up another major. The idea was to do the hardest thing possible - it maximizes your mobility, which then allows you to choose your path."

The Eckerd environment was a good fit for O'Connell, who says, "I don't like rigidity and structure and Eckerd was pretty much unstructured. The physics and math professors... encouraged you to explore your field in your way."

Aaron earned a 3.99 GPA and received the National Sciences Scholarship and Service Award and the Meacham Mathematics Memorial Award before heading to the University of California Santa Barbara for graduate school, where he made an impressive debut on the research scene.

Working under the direction of two advisers, physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis, he set out to create the world's first quantum machine as his PhD project. It took three years, but O'Connell succeeded, and Science magazine cited the revolutionary accomplishment as the "2010 Breakthrough of the Year." The machine is "first object that can only be described according to the laws of quantum physics," says O'Connell. "You can show, through a series of measurements, that it's vibrating a little and vibrating a lot at the same time." The eureka! moment happened late at night in the lab, but O'Connell didn't immediately believe what he saw.

"We'd been trying and failing and trying and failing, and when it happens, it does blow your mind - it's so counterintuitive. I took measurements for another week just to prove to myself that it really happened."

In a press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Adrian Cho, a news writer for Science, stated, "This year's Breakthrough of the Year represents the first time that scientists have demonstrated quantum effects in the motion of a human-made object. On a conceptual level that's cool because it extends quantum mechanics into a whole new realm. On a practical level, it opens up a variety of possibilities ranging from new experiments that meld quantum control over light, electrical currents and motion to, perhaps someday, tests of the bounds of quantum mechanics and our sense of reality."

After finishing his doctorate in December 2010, O'Connell had planned to go to work on Wall Street, but being invited to speak at the 2011 TED Conference launched him in a different direction. "The talk was really well-received, and I thought I would get a job offer but I didn't. The attendees are an amazing group of people, and they asked 'What do you love? What do you want to do and how can I help you achieve your goals?'"

Stay tuned to see what Aaron does next...

This feature is the thirteenth in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Jeffrey Ackley '08
Marion Marshall White '74
Jane A. Petro '68
Olester Benson '74
Rebecca Helm '07
Michael Depledge
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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