One minute with Cristián Peña, associate researcher at Fermilab Quantum Institute



Whether on the mountainside or working at the Fermilab Quantum Institute, Cristián Peña enjoys exploring the unknown and taking on new challenges. Although he spends most of his time working on quantum communication systems for FIQ, Peña spends time working on the CMS experiment. His work between the two experiments, although different in practice, is conceptually similar. Photo: Cristián Peña

What are you working on at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory?

I am at the Fermilab Quantum Institute. I work on various aspects of high energy physics and quantum information science. I’m working on what we call quantum communication systems; it is using the properties of quantum entanglement to distribute information.

On the other side, I also work for the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment. At CMS, I’m working on precision timing detectors, and I’m also researching new physics in so-called long-lived particles.

How did Fermilab fit into your professional career?

I was an electrical engineer as an undergraduate in Chile until I switched to physics at some point near the end of my undergraduate degree. Then I came to Fermilab as an undergraduate student from Chile to work on neutrino physics.

In the United States, I applied to graduate school and entered Caltech. There, I did my doctorate. in particle physics with the CMS experiment. I applied for a post-doctorate in many places and decided to join Fermilab as a Lederman Fellow.

As a Lederman Fellow, you have the freedom to choose what you do, which is great. I decided to work partly on the CMS, and in parallel, to develop a new program to perform quantum communication experiments, which at the time was quantum teleportation. Now, the new experiment we’re doing at the Fermi Quantum Institute is called entanglement exchange.

How does your work overlap between the Fermi Quantum Institute and CMS?

I tend to think of ways to connect the dots. For example, super-precise timing is something we’ve worked on a lot in CMS, and it also turns out to underpin our quantum communication projects. Ultra-precise timing detectors are essential to achieving our ambitious scientific goals, along with electronic systems capable of reading timing information with high accuracy. These are all aspects in which Fermilab is a leader in the field, which makes it very rewarding to be involved in such a vibrant community.

For example, recording the time of arrival of a long-lived particle in the CMS detector and the time of arrival of a photon in quantum teleportation or entanglement exchange experiments require very precise time measurements. It is not the same detector that we use, but it is the same concept. There is a lot of information encoded in the arrival time of a particle, and measuring it as accurately as possible allows us to conduct our experiments. By working on the frontier of time-precision detectors, I can transfer knowledge from one community to another and conduct experiments seamlessly between the two.

How do external collaborations play a role in your experience as a Fermilab scientist?

As a Fermilab scientist, I have the opportunity to interact with experts from different fields who come here to use our expertise. We have very successful and active collaborations that really push the boundaries.

People from all walks of life come here. We have students, post-docs and professors who set up their experiences at Fermilab. We have a very fluid collaboration with them so it’s something that I really appreciate.

It also feels like you don’t always correct the same thing over and over again. There is always something new, something unique, and there is always a new challenge. It’s refreshing to have new students, to train new people and to learn from them too. So it’s very, very unique.

“As a Fermilab scientist, I have the opportunity to interact with experts from different fields who come here to use our expertise. We have very successful and active collaborations that really push the boundaries. “

Can you tell me about specific projects you are working on that require collaboration?

The Illinois Express Quantum Network is an experiment in which we collaborate closely with Northwestern University, Argonne National Lab, and Caltech. The project consists of communicating or connecting, through the use of optical fibers and single photons, various quantum nodes across the Chicagoland region with Argonne and Northwestern. For the Fermilab Quantum Network (FQNET), although it bears the name “Fermilab”, we work very closely with Caltech. This original collaboration was the bootstrap experiment for the more complex Illinois Express quantum lattice.

What do you like to do when you are not at work?

I grew up next to the Andes mountains. In physics, you explore new things as much as possible, and that’s what mountains give you. There is that sense of exploring new things and challenges. Now that I have kids my free time is more family oriented, but the mountains are still a part of our family trips.

The Fermilab Quantum Institute is supported by the DOE Office of Science.

Fermilab is the host laboratory in the United States that facilitates the participation of hundreds of American physicists from more than 50 institutions in the CMS experiment at CERN. Fermilab CMS plays a leading role in the construction and operation of detectors, IT and software, as well as in data analysis.

The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit


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