2016 Maxwell Medal and prize of the Institute of Physics

Dr Alexandra Olaya-Castro, University College London, for her contributions to the theory of quantum effects in biomolecular systems – in particular, to the understanding of exciton-vibration interactions and the emergence of nontrivial quantum behaviour in photosynthetic complexes.

Photo of Alexandra Olaya Castro

Dr Alexandra Olaya-Castro has played a central international role in the field of quantum biology, an emergent interdisciplinary research area aimed at understanding whether quantum-mechanical phenomena are important for the function of biomolecules.

By making use of modern theoretical quantum science, which focuses on identifying quantum-enhanced performance, together with techniques in physical chemistry and biology, she has pioneered a new generation of theoretical approaches for understanding quantum effects in photosynthesis.

Olaya-Castro made her first seminal contribution to this field in 2008, reporting on how the interplay between quantum superpositions of exciton states and static disorder could lead to an optimal energy-transfer efficiency in bacterial light-harvesting antennae. She has since lead research at University College London to push the boundaries of our understanding of the quantum dynamics of electronic excitations in the initial stages of photosynthesis, and the influence of quantum coherence.

Her research has provided exceptional insights into the critical issue of how vibronic coupling affects exciton coherence and energy distribution in light-harvesting systems. The conceptual importance of her work has been widely recognised both in the UK and worldwide, and the novelty and outstanding quality of the research that Olaya-Castro is leading showcased at the UK’s Royal Society Science Summer exhibition 2016.