UTRIP: Prof. Hirofumi Sakai's Lab (Physics)

by Indy Liu

600_IMG_6486I can still vividly remember the nervousness that engulfed me when I woke up on March 31st to find UTRIP’s selection decision in my mailbox and the excitement that surged through when I found out that I was offered a place in the program. This was a dream come true for me: I have been hoping to live and work in Tokyo ever since I first attended a Japanese language school in the city eight summers ago. I duly accepted my offer, and that sparked the beginning of the most exciting and productive summers I have experienced.
IMG_6786I was offered a place in professor Sakai Hirofumi’s lab to study molecular orientation and high harmonic generation. Our lab stands at the intersection between quantum optics and chemistry — the findings of our experiments can be applied to develop new lasers, improve molecular imaging techniques, and gain a better understanding of chemical reactions. We use a two-color femtosecond laser to develop practical methods for aligning and orienting gaseous molecules such as carbon monoxide, and use these molecules to generate high order harmonics. Since chemical reactions are sensitive to the orientation of molecules when they interact with one another, the ability to control molecular orientation would help chemists elucidate the mechanism behind various reactions. Aligned and oriented molecules can also be used to generate high harmonics of the input laser, which are electromagnetic waves with frequencies that are integer multiples of the input laser frequency. This technique can be used to create lasers with frequencies that were previously out of reach, and also to create pulses with previously unattainable attosecond duration. During my stay, our lab was in the middle of an experiment where we hope to be the first to directly observe orientation in carbon monoxide molecules through Coulomb explosion imaging. As a student of theoretical physics at a liberal arts college, it was eye-opening for me to participate in an experiment that stands at the forefront of its field. I have learned much about the excitements and struggles of being an experimental physicist, and I am sincerely grateful for Sakai-sensei and Minemoto-sensei for their patient guidance.
IMG_6814Outside the laboratory, Japan has again been a wonderful host. Thanks to the financial support of FUTI and the understanding of the UTRIP office, I was allowed to stay in a sharehouse save money over staying in Todai’s accommodation. It was a privilege to chat with my housemates about their experiences living in Tokyo and abroad, and a blessing to have forged new friendships with them. In addition, the stunning view from the top of Tokyo Sky Tree that I shared with my lab mate Siobhan, the beautiful vintage oscilloscopes that I ran into in the back streets of Akihabara, and the superlative ramen shops that I have explored with my housemates and other UTRIP students were undoubtedly the highlights of the past six weeks.
But of course, this report would not be complete without a mention of the trip to Kanazawa that I shared with Siobhan. A late night dash on the new Kanazawa Shinkansen saw us in the city before the start of the weekend rush. Despite the heavy drizzle and some occasional windstorm, Kanazawa was not at all shy to show us its charms. The serene Kenrokuen garden, the bustling Omi-Cho market, the playful 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and the supreme cafes at Higashi-Chaya District all added up to some absolutely unforgettable memories.
Alas, my six weeks at Todai went by in the blink of an eye. No tears were shed when I waved farewell to my friends at Todai and at my sharehouse though, since this will surely not be the end of the story. The time I have spent in professor Sakai’s lab has further motivated me to continue on in physics, and the time I have spent outside the lab made me all the more eager to live in Japan. So, as I step onto the plane at Haneda airport, Japan, good bye for now, but I will be back.
I would like to thank professor Sakai and assistant professor Minemoto for their insightful and patient guidance in the lab, Komatsubara Wataru and Katsumi Ryota for their friendly mentorship, the UTRIP office for organizing this program, FUTI for their recognition and financial assistance, and Siobhan for her companionship both inside and outside the lab.