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Humboldt Fellow Etienne Wamba makes quantum connections

The theoretical physicist says the Humboldt Fellowship and his experience in Germany has been life-changing both professionally and personally.

Von Unispectrum live • Laura Petersen

For theoretical physicist Etienne Wamba, completing his two-year Humboldt Fellowship at Technische Universität Kaiserslautern has been the experience of a lifetime. 

“I think this will be one of the best things that will have happened in my career,” Wamba said. 

Professionally, the fellowship enabled him to work with Prof. Dr. James R. Anglin and Priv.-Doz. Dr. Axel Pelster, exploring the foundations of quantum matter. Wamba relishes the deep discussions and debates with his two supervisors and colleagues to advance their field. 

The fellowship was also personally rewarding. 

“I have spent a relatively short time in Germany, but I know quite well Germany thanks to the Humboldt Foundation,” Wamba said. 

He explained that the foundation offers up to four months of intensive language training, and organizes a two-week tour of the country to educate fellows about German history and culture. Wamba heard from colleagues that he had been to places many Germans have not. For example, fellows are hosted with their families at the German President’s official residence, Schloss Bellevue, for an annual gathering. Being able to share that experience with his four children was “something that you cannot buy with money,” he said. 

Wamba is from Cameroon, a country situated on the Western coast of central Africa. As a child, he was always fascinated by vehicles, wanting to know how they work. He was particularly enthralled by the large diggers, trucks and other machines constructing a highway through his small village, Baleveng, and made working models of the machines out of bamboo. 

At 11 years old, he moved to the nearest major city to continue schooling. He excelled in biology, mathematics and physics and was one of the first 10 students in the country to pass his baccalaureat, the exam required for graduating high school in the French education system. 

While his parents hoped he might pursue education or medicine, Wamba was most passionate about physics. 

“I wanted to see how things work in the real world, how phenomena occur and why,” he said. “Those are the questions I like.”

After completing his undergraduate and masters degree in physics at Dschang University, he conducted his PhD research at University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon. He worked as a high school chemistry and physics teacher to support himself throughout his studies. 

"It was not very easy, but I survived," he said. 

Upon earning his Ph.D. in 2013, he secured an assistant lecturer position at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Limbe, Cameroon. He applied for and received the Humboldt Fellowship in 2015. 

His early research interest was focused on the physics of communication, including wireless transmission, fiber optics and even sound as it enters our ears and is translated into information. But when he heard about Bose-Einstein condensed matter, boson gas cooled to ultra-low temperatures with quantum properties, he was fascinated by the range of potential applications, from elemental physics to fiber optics and quantum computing. 

“If you can use methods to tackle different domains, it is far better,” he said. 

At TU Kaiserslautern, he used theoretical methods to help improve physical experiments for understanding quantum gases and condensed matter. 

When physicists want to test how particles behave under certain conditions, but can’t actually do the experiment due to technical limitations, that’s when theoretical physicists like Wamba come in. He figures out how to relate outcomes of an achievable experiment with an experiment too challenging to perform for the chosen parameters. By exploring those relationships, he is able to provide insight into how particles would most likely behave.

He is particularly interested in studying “many body systems” like quantum gases of atoms and molecules. 

“Look at real life,” Wamba said. “When you have a system where you have only one individual, it is simpler than when there are two or more individuals. You have to take into account not only the behavior of each individual, but also the effects of interactions between them.”

While his fellowship has officially come to an end and he will now be applying for research positions in Cameroon, Wamba looks forward to continuing collaborations with his German colleagues. He also plans to encourage his children to learn German, so perhaps one day they too can make the most of an opportunity to study or work in Germany.

Bild des Benutzers Melanie Löw
am 15.05.2019 von
Melanie Löw