When Danna Freedman was once asked about the most difficult part of her research, she couldn’t stop referring to obstacles as opportunities and challenges as excitement. “Every time we hit an obstacle, it allows us to discover new science,” she told an interviewer at Northwestern University in 2017, describing the difficulties she encountered in her research as one of her “most rewarding” moments .
For Freedman, FG Keyes Professor of Chemistry at MIT, focusing on a difficult problem seems to be her idea of nirvana. Currently, her research group is using inorganic chemistry to make molecules for quantum information science, creating a new class of quantum devices that can be easily tuned for quantum communications. But at any time, their idea of a favorite breakthrough is generally the challenge.
“I love the latest result, what I’m struggling to understand and improve at any given time,” says Freedman.
Her determination and enthusiasm for the unsolved problem began growing up in a small town in upstate New York, where she early showed a strong interest in science and the questions scientists are working to answer.
Freedman says her parents “patiently participated in hours of conversation about the best way to drop an egg any number of stories without breaking it.”
“Unfortunately, I heard that Bungee Egg Drop is no longer a Science Olympiad event,” she jokes.
Referring to her more recent efforts, Freedman says that her lab’s bottom-up design of molecules that can act as tunable, scalable, versatile, and robust qubits is an important step towards full realization of quantum sensing and communications. Such quantum operations could uncover new information about the world around us, detect dark matter, lead to insights into biological systems, or help transmit information across complex messy interfaces in a quantum state.
“We developed a different approach to such a goal,” says Freedman. “It will take a long, dedicated, interdisciplinary effort to bring these ideas to fruition, and I’m incredibly excited to make it happen.”
Freedman and her lab work together through the Q-NEXT National Quantum Information Science Research Center, which is managed by the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, among others. With support from Q-NEXT and others, Freedman and members of her team, as well as researchers from the University of Chicago and Columbia University, recently published an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society demonstrated that a specific set of qubits—in this case, molecules with a central chromium atom surrounded by four hydrocarbon molecules—could be tailored for specific goals in quantum sensing and communications.
“As part of Q-NEXT and other research centers, we are integrating these molecules into the larger quantum ecosystem,” says Freedman, whose work has earned her many awards, including Presidential Early Career Awards for scientists and engineers from the US Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation .
Freedman’s lab is also working to use extreme pressures, sometimes comparable to the pressures at the Earth’s core, to synthesize new materials. Her team is studying one such material, the first iron-bismuth binary compound, for its magnetic properties and potential as a superconductor, both aspects that could have far-reaching implications for areas such as energy production and transportation.
Freedman’s characteristic ambition is also evident in her teaching and mentoring. She says that to help young researchers develop, it’s about “giving them a foundation on which to excel, and then throwing them in at the deep end and asking them to swim.” But when they don’t succeed, she says, “then the foundation is missing and I have to work harder and try different approaches to prepare them.”
With her determination to seek new and growing challenges, Freedman came to MIT in 2021 after transferring from Northwestern University, where she was a professor of chemistry. She says the potential for collaboration at MIT boosted her motivation.
“I’ve been in my career for about 10 years, and as our research expands in new directions, I wanted to form teams that would go beyond my own research and network in different directions,” says Freedman. “When I spoke to the faculty at MIT, every idea I had became expanded and made more actionable. The visions of the scientists and engineers at MIT spur me on to have better ideas and to be a better scientist.”
She says she is “enlivened by the culture of the institute. I’m still impressed by the kindness and commitment and equal culture I see here. It behooves me to keep improving it, but it’s a phenomenal place to start.”
And from this starting point, it is natural to move forward despite obstacles. Her great drive to move forward is perhaps also reflected in her great love of walking and running, which she tries to do every day.
“In Boston, I walked most of the train lines,” she says, adding that she also enjoys “walking from Harvard Square down North Harvard Street to Coolidge Corner, on to Chestnut Hill Reservoir and back along the Commonwealth. I like to run from MIT to Chestnut Hill Reservoir and back… and in Belmont I run the Minuteman Trail.”
“As I walk or run,” says Freedman, “I convert existing thoughts into coherent sentences, create conversations, and refine ideas.”