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Research Clusters Accelerate the Impact of Emerging Technologies

Syracuse University is harnessing the power of interdisciplinary partnerships to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges.

Researchers work with a student test out virtual reality technology.

Professors Elisa Dekaney, Melissa Luke and Makana Chock (left to right) discuss uses of virtual reality while a student demonstrates. “People refer to these immersive technologies as an empathy machine,” says Chock.

With innovative new faculty and intensified research activity, Syracuse University’s ten academic research clusters are poised to make a transformational scientific, environmental and social impact. Each cluster involves multiple scholars in at least two of the University’s schools or colleges based on shared interdisciplinary research interests. Emerging technologies are a focus of several research clusters—including Quantum Information Science and Virtual and Immersive Interactions—where scholars are collaborating to realize the potential of new tools in rapidly evolving fields.

Breaking the Information Science Speed Barrier

Imagine being a logistics engineer at a global transport company managing schedules and time zones, levels of service and the capacity of planes, trucks and delivery personnel. Traditional computing models don’t have enough power or speed to address so many variables efficiently, but quantum computers can.

“The speed and ability to handle large quantities of data matters for complex problems like this that require optimization. Other examples are certain types of financial modeling or simulating pharmaceutical molecules that need to interact with biological systems,” says Britton Plourde, professor of physics and one of the Quantum Information Science research cluster leaders.

Portrait of Professor Britton Plourde in science lab.

Physics professor Britton Plourde leads the Quantum Information Science research cluster, where physicists, chemists, engineers and computer scientists are seeking ways to move from today’s prototypes to scalable solutions.

Along with other faculty from physics, chemistry and engineering and computer science, Plourde is working to solve some of the fundamental physics and engineering problems needed to move from today’s prototypes to scalable solutions. “The leading approach to building a quantum computer uses microfabricated integrated circuits, but instead of using semiconductor materials like silicon, we use metals that become superconducting,” he says.

There’s a catch. Superconducting materials only work at very low temperatures—close to absolute zero (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit)—so work with these superconducting circuits is conducted inside a dilution refrigerator. “Building a large-scale quantum processor by scaling up today’s approach creates an impractical engineering problem, where we need inputs and outputs for each quantum bit, or qubit, but the wires going into and out of the refrigerator also carry heat with them, and the control electronics outside the fridge are bulky,” Plourde explains. “Taking today’s systems with 50 or so qubits and scaling to a million qubits would require a space that’s the equivalent of several football fields.”

Plourde works with a team of students and postdoctoral fellows to make new kinds of miniature superconducting circuits that can go inside the fridge with the qubits instead of requiring wires and enormous storage areas. “It’s a key hurdle to scaling up quantum computing technologies,” he notes. Cross-institutional collaboration is key to this research, enabling experts to develop specialized knowledge that contributes to large-scale solutions. Syracuse’s partnership with Cornell University’s nanofabrication facility and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, New York, has helped attract some of the nation’s top talent to this effort. These pioneering interdisciplinary research teams also provide an opportunity to train the next generation of scientists and engineers for this fast-growing field.

Extending Reality to Teach, Heal and Persuade

“As we have all seen during the pandemic, virtual interactions can be valuable and they can be problematic,” says Elisa Dekaney, professor of music education and a co-leader of the Virtual and Immersive Interactions research cluster. “Technology removes barriers of geography, mobility and other factors that keep people from interacting. But it can also be isolating, hard to use or not equitably available. Bringing together researchers, practitioners and educators, we are trying to tackle the virtual environment from multiple angles.”

We have the tools and the expertise to design user experiences for virtual and immersive interactions across multiple fields, training students for jobs on the leading edge of these technologies.

—Professor Makana Chock

Melissa Luke, Dean’s Professor of counseling and human services and a cluster co-leader, agrees. “There are simulations that we know can be helpful. For example, in virtual therapy patients can benefit from being in the space where they experienced a difficult interaction while videoconferencing with a supportive therapist. But other counseling interactions — like group therapy — can be very difficult to replicate in a virtual or immersive environment,” she says.

Makana Chock, associate professor of communications and cluster co-leader, is excited about collaborations. Her research in media psychology studies how people process and respond to persuasive messages in the virtual reality context. “People refer to these immersive technologies as an empathy machine. I’m interested in the extent to which these experiences affect people’s attitudes and behavior.” Her work has implications for media literacy in the age of deepfakes and for the ethics of technology use. “Researchers have found that young children form memories based on virtual and immersive experiences that they don’t differentiate from regular experiences. Immersive virtual reality experiences can interact with people’s existing biases to change their attitudes and behavior. We need to understand these outcomes.”

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and educators, we are trying to tackle the virtual environment from multiple angles.

—Professor Elisa Dekaney

Chock oversees a lab in the Newhouse School of Public Communications where researchers from across Syracuse University can design and carry out these kinds of studies. "We have the tools and the expertise to design user experiences for virtual and immersive interactions across multiple fields, training students for jobs on the leading edge of these technologies. It’s very exciting.”

Syracuse University champions a trailblazing, innovative spirit. When one of us rises, we all rise as Orange. 

Discover how we go beyond.

Ellen de Graffenreid

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • Virtual and Immersive Interactions

    The Virtual and Immersive Interactions cluster is an interdisciplinary team of researchers and educators that integrates education, therapy, data visualization and communication in STEM, social sciences, education, humanities and the arts. In these times, it is vitally important to develop a better understanding of the applications of virtual and online technology.

  • Quantum Information Science

    The Quantum Information Science (QIS) cluster represents a rapidly advancing field generating new technologies, such as quantum computers, that have the potential to be transformative for society.