news highlights

Meet ICTP's Diploma Graduates

Luis Colmenárez: Finding potential in many-body physics

20/08/2018 - Trieste

Sometimes it takes only one teacher to spark a student’s passion for physics. That’s what happened to Luis Colmenárez, one of the top students in this year's ICTP Postgraduate Diploma Programme. As a high school student in San Fernando de Apure, Venezuela, Colmenárez felt inspired by his physics teacher. “With him I realized I like physics, but I especially like the tangible things. The different kinds of behavior of matter are very interesting,” says Colmenárez. This combination of interests led him to condensed matter physics at ICTP. “From there I started looking up where I could do a degree in physics, and I learned much more. But the curiosity came first.” Now he’s exploring the varied behaviors of matter, and dreams of being a physics professor himself.

“ICTP is an amazing place,” says Colmenárez. “Four or five years ago, I didn’t think such a place could exist." He first heard about the center from an older friend who completed the Diploma Programme in Earth System Physics a few years ago. “My first time traveling outside of my country was to go to an ICTP school in São Paulo, at ICTP’s partner institute, the ICTP- South American Institute for Fundamental Research,” says Colmenárez. “It really helped me envision a career in science.”

Luis2That career is well on its way thanks to Colmenárez‘s current work in many body physics with ICTP scientist Marcello Delmonte. The two are working together on a project that compares analytical and numerical approaches to spin systems, part of a larger effort to understand how the innate spin of electrons can be utilized to create new solid-state devices and technologies to outperform existing ones. The potential to store data in spin patterns, or by harnessing other characteristics of electrons such as superpositions or quantum entanglement, is a popular and promising area of research right now, and Colmenárez would like to continue in a similar vein for his PhD.

That PhD work will take place at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany. From there, Colmenárez hopes to do several postdoctoral positions before becoming a professor of physics himself. “I’m very comfortable in academia,” says Colmenarez. “Right now the dream is to establish my own research group. I would be happy working for a university.”

Many ICTP Diploma students hope to move back to their home country after their education and training reaches a certain point, often after a postdoctoral position or two in different places across the world. Colmenárez would also like to return home, but conditions in Venezuela would mean a very difficult path forward as a researcher, at least right now. “My supervisor from my bachelor’s degree has since left Venezuela,” says Colmenárez. “He is working in Ecuador. From my research group at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC), almost everyone has left. There are still many students, but no professors,” says Colmenárez. “It is still my dream to work in my country. If it is possible, perfect.”

Venezuela's poor economic conditions have led to a massive funding shortfall for scientists, with no money for traveling, conferences, basic equipment, or even salaries. Scientists are leaving the country at very high rates for other countries in Latin America, where salaries are several orders of magnitude higher, or elsewhere abroad, a diaspora which will likely affect science in Venezuela for years to come. Beyond a scientist’s career, blackouts, increased violence, and scarcity of food and medicine make life very difficult.

Regardless of where Colmenárez builds his research career, his family is very proud of him and how proactive he has been to make that career happen. “I’ve done many things on my own,” Colmenárez says, “but they’ve been very supportive.” Colmenárez is the youngest and only scientist in the family that includes many people in business and engineering. “Engineering wouldn’t work for me,” Colmenárez laughs. “I’m bad with my hands. Theory is much more fun.” That theory and scientific knowledge is used to great effect with his nieces and nephews, too: “I show them science experiments and videos whenever I see them, and their heads explode,” smiles Colmenárez.

“My Diploma experience was wonderful, one of the best years of my life,” Colmenarez reflects, mentioning how many new people and new cultures he encountered just within his class of Diploma students. “Staying in one place for many years can make you complacent, in science, in life,” says Colmenárez. “Moving here changed my perspective completely.”


 ---- Kelsey Calhoun