Jennifer Hoffman

Running Through the Endless Possibilities

When she's not out running 200 kilometres at a time (yes, seriously), she's making world-shaking discoveries in quantum materials.


Jennifer Hoffman is an Associate Fellow in Quantum Materials at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). We asked her everything from what inspired her to become a researcher to what she does for fun in hopes of giving you a better understanding of one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What inspired you to become a researcher?
My mom was a high school physics teacher, and when I was a young child she inspired me with many fun math puzzles and physics demos. As long as I can remember, I’ve known that I wanted to be a scientist.

What do you like most about your work?
I love brainstorming with students and colleagues, trying to understand some new data or new concept.

What do you envision in the future of your field?
My goal is to discover and create new materials with useful electronic properties. My technique is painstaking tiny mechanical manipulations of single atoms.

The traditional boundaries between physics, chemistry, and biology are already blurred, and I hope that they will continue to blur. I hope that we can learn from the biologists how to make materials that assemble themselves.

How will your research make a difference in people’s lives?
I hope that I can discover a material which will have a transformative effect on everyday technology. My most ambitious goal is to find a superconductor which can conduct electricity without loss at ambient temperature. In the meantime, I am devoting much of my time to better understanding superconductors that function at much lower temperatures – hoping to stumble across new insights which can guide our search for the room temperature superconductor.

What advice would you give to young researchers?
Find a research group with really great people who can be your friends as well as collaborators. Science is all-consuming, so you need to love and be inspired by the people you work with 80 hours/week. Science is also fickle: sometimes hard work and promising approaches take years to pay off, and sometimes great papers are rejected by cranky referees, so you need to be surrounded by loyal people who will support you during the lows, and remind you how smart you are and how great it will be when your experiment does work and your paper is published.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My proudest achievement is winning the USA National Championship 24-hour run in both 2014 and 2015. I ran 222 kilometers in 24 hours. I donated my $1,200 winner’s check to the Special Olympics, so that other less-privileged people can experience the same athletic camaraderie and pride that I have been blessed with.

My greatest scientific achievement so far was pioneering the use of “quasiparticle interference imaging” to measure the local band structure of quantum materials. To translate this into more accessible language: I figured out how to measure the momentum of electrons in a material, with nanoscale spatial resolution, approximately a thousand times smaller than previous standard techniques. Understanding the electron momentum and energy with this high spatial resolution gives us much better insight into how the electron interactions can determine the macroscopic, useful electronic properties of the material. This work has been cited 1,000 times, and the technique is now in use in labs all over the world.

What do you read?
Anything I can get my hands on. Scientific literature, popular science, books on management and psychology, inspiring biographies, and even trashy novels when I need to check out my brain for a while.

What natural talent would you like to be gifted with?
The not-stick-my-foot-in-my-mouth talent. I seem to be lacking it.
Oh, and the not-stick-so-much-chocolate-in-my-mouth talent would be nice too.

What’s on your iPod/CD collection/turntable?
Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (most inspiring running song ever)
and Tim Blais’ brilliant parody “Choose Yourself” which inspires me as a physicist.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be? 
Professional runner.

What do you like to do for fun?
Run and run and run and run. I love running.

Do you have a favourite motto/words to live by?
My all-time favorite quote (by Hunter S. Thompson):

“Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘Holy shit, what a ride!’”

I always set impossibly high goals for myself, but I’m inspired by this quote:

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”