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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

What they did this summer: perspectives from five Open Quantum Initiative undergraduate fellows

Five undergraduate fellows supporting research at the Q-NEXT quantum research center share what they’ve learned about quantum information science, their research experiences and their aspirations.

This summer, universities and national laboratories across the Midwest welcomed 12 undergraduates to conduct quantum research as part of the Open Quantum Initiative Undergraduate Fellowship program.

The Open Quantum Initiative (OQI) is a group of researchers, educators and leaders among the Chicago Quantum Exchange that champions the values of diversity, equity and inclusion in quantum information science (QIS). The goal of the OQI Fellowship is to expand the quantum workforce into a more diverse and inclusive community by helping undergraduate students from a broad variety of backgrounds gain hands-on experience.

Five of the 12 OQI fellows spent their summer supporting research at Q-NEXT, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Quantum Information Science Research Center hosted by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. Here’s what they said about their OQI experiences:

Alejandro Aponte

School: Florida International University
Major: Physics, with minors in computer science and math
Anticipated graduation date: Spring 2024
OQI institution: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
OQI advisor: Elizabeth Goldschmidt

Q. What is the focus of your OQI research? A. We’re building an imaging system, essentially a microscope. We’re lining up lasers to focus on a piece of material inside a cryostat, creating an image of the material. Usually we’re focused on crystals that host rare-earth minerals. It’s 4 Kelvin inside a cryostat, creating the temperature where the material starts showing interesting properties that we can use for quantum information systems.

Q. What is your role? A. I’m setting up nearly the entire imaging system, arranging the optics — the lasers, the lenses, the camera — to capture the images.

Q. What have you gained from the OQI experience? A. The most significant part has been the relationships I’ve developed with the people that work here. They’re all genuinely interested in physics and passionate about what they do. That rubs off on you. You start appreciating things more. It’s given me insight into what I’ll be doing in grad school.

Q. What new perspectives do you have about QIS? A. I’ve learned a lot more technical material, how to do experiments and create methods for studying quantum information transmission — things that I’d never learn from a quantum class. You’re submerged in the research firsthand. That gives you knowledge that you wouldn’t gain anywhere else.

Q. What’s next for you? A. I’m part of a postbaccalaureate program at Florida International that prepares you for a Ph.D., so I’m working toward that. I want to go into quantum information systems, which is why I got into physics in the first place.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside of research? A. Believe it or not, I really like computers. I put a lot of video games on them, so I like building fancy, top-notch computers. I’m also trying to improve my Python skills and other programming.

Q. Any last thoughts? A. It’s never too late to do what you want. I changed majors during COVID. I wasn’t passionate about my first major, so why do it in the first place? Follow what you find fulfilling, both inside and outside your career. You’ll probably want to keep doing that the rest of your life.

Cody Castle

School: City Colleges of Chicago; transferring to University of Illinois Chicago (UIC)
Major: Computer engineering
Anticipated graduation date: Spring 2024
OQI institution: Argonne National Laboratory
OQI advisor: F. Joseph Heremans

Q. What is the focus of your OQI research? A. Our group is working on automating a process in which we create diamond membranes to be used in quantum devices. Through an chemical etching process, a thin layer can be peeled from the diamond. We’re using image recognition and computer vision to better control the speed, shape and reliability of the etch process.

Q. What is your role? A. I’m developing the software to make that process more seamless, easier and more scalable.

Q. What have you gained from the OQI experience? A. Science is more than the scientific method. It’s an interconnectedness of experts, sharing ideas and solving problems together. The most rewarding thing has been meeting wonderful and supportive people every step of the way. Those relationships are going sustain me through my aspirations and what I do next.

Q. What new perspectives do you have about QIS? A. The field is growing quickly, and that’s also important for policymakers and private and public sectors. I didn’t quite grasp the scale of it until I was in it, and I’m still learning more about it. It’s an incredible field that is so well supported right now.

Q. What’s next for you? A. I want to go through a Ph.D. program and be able to experience that, dive in.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside of research? A. I love to bake and cook, so sometimes I’ll bring in treats, as group members here know. I love running down the Lake Shore Drive path. I’ve been heavily involved in student government, and I’ve learned so much about policy, relationship-building and how to serve and listen to others.

Q. Any last thoughts? A. I’m lucky enough to have fallen in love with quantum science. Every time I get up in the morning, I have an extra spring in my step because I get to study this. I’m excited to help mentor the next OQI fellows. I think that’s the biggest impact I can have in the Q-NEXT community and others.

Ariadna Fernandez

School: University of Illinois Chicago
Major: Computer science
Anticipated graduation date: Fall 2022
OQI institution: University of Chicago (UChicago)
OQI advisor: Laura Gagliardi

Q. What is the focus of your research? A. We’re testing a quantum method for calculating the energy levels of molecular systems, which can require a lot of computational resources. The Gagliardi Group is working to harness quantum computing capabilities to help make these calculations faster and perhaps run calculations that are impossible for classical computers.

Q. What is your role? A. I’m testing a quantum algorithm that estimates the energy levels of a molecular system. We want to see how we can use it to get us accurate results in the least amount of time and using the least amount of resources.

Q. What have you gained from the OQI experience? A. I’ve gained a lot of technical and theoretical knowledge on scientific computing in general. I’ve worked on programs and algorithms before, but quantum computing and computational chemistry are different from what I’ve done in the past. I’ve also enjoyed my conversations the most with the lab’s graduate students and postdocs.

Q. What new perspectives do you have about QIS? A. Before this experience I didn’t know much about QIS apart from the potential power of quantum computing. This experience has really opened up my perspective on the field and motivated me to continue on the journey to realizing practical quantum computing.

Q. What’s next for you? A. I’m interested in applying for graduate studies. I’ve realized that I really do like research. It can be challenging for sure, but it’s an interesting and exciting challenge. It’s motivating to know that your research could be impactful and lead you into a new direction or discovery.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside of research? A. I like to listen to music, go on walks and talk with friends and family. It helps me clear my mind. I also enjoy painting.

Q. Any last thoughts? A. We’re very lucky to have this experience. ­It gives us an opportunity to learn, develop our skills and explore in a safe space what a career in this field could be like. I’m happy to see that OQI and the Chicago Quantum Exchange are looking to expand these opportunities in the future for more students.

Adrian Portales

School: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Major: Mechanical engineering, computer science minor
Anticipated graduation date: Spring 2023
OQI institution: Argonne National Laboratory
OQI advisor: Supratik Guha

Q. What is the focus of your research? A. I’m studying the ability to remove and integrate thin semiconductor and insulator films onto silicon and other substrates. This technique allows us to produce high-fidelity qubit-hosting components with extreme precision. Additionally, the quantum hardware we’re developing is CMOS-compatible, meaning it couples well with traditional microchips. This ultimately enables the integration between quantum and classical systems to create long-distance quantum networks.

Q. What is your role? A. I’m developing a scalable process for achieving uniform films of quantum materials. Once these films are separated from their source material, the individual layers can be used in various quantum devices.

Q. What have you gained from the OQI experience? A. I’ve learned how to create and use these materials to build quantum devices and hardware. This experience has also given me insight into what I’d like to do 10 years down the road when starting my own company. I’m really interested in tech entrepreneurship — it’s definitely an avenue I plan to explore in the future.

Q. What new perspectives do you have about QIS? A. Currently the field is extremely transdisciplinary. We need a lot of experts given how new it is — not to mention how quickly it’s been growing. QIS is a joint effort from everyone involved since it’s difficult to truly understand the potential of quantum.

Q. What’s next for you? A. Getting a Ph.D. in quantum engineering is my dream. After my postdoc, I plan to use what I’ve learned to build a quantum computing and hardware startup.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside of research? A. I write a lot of music, mainly fretless bass arrangements of my favorite standards. I also play in a jazz fusion group.

Q. Any last thoughts? A. I’m really excited for the future of technology, specifically, building a quantum internet. This grand idea is the overarching goal of our research. To get there, we need repeaters with fault-tolerant quantum memories, which will allow communication signals to stay alive. Eventually, our atom-layer films will go into these repeaters — an important step toward quantum communication. Being on the forefront of this field is amazing, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Tiarna Wise

School: Coppin State University
Major: Computer science
Anticipated graduation date: Fall 2022
OQI institution: University of Chicago
OQI advisor: David Awschalom

Q. What is the focus of your research? A. We’re working on devices for transmitting signals to and from qubits. The setup involves two devices: one to create the signals and one to receive them. We’re working with a single electronics board that produces and reads signals.

Q. What is your role? A. I work with Elizabeth Medina, a junior from Princeton University. Initially, because I’m more interested in the hardware side of computation, I put together the essential connecting cables for controlling the board. We’re improving the computing code, with lots of help from the graduate students and postdocs.

Q. What have you gained from the OQI experience? A. Things I didn’t know before, questions I had — they were getting answered lickety-split. Having a sense of community with peers, the hands-on experience — it’s been nothing short of amazing. Getting that one-on-one time with mentors, hearing their stories, and knowing all they do to achieve their goals have been inspiring.

Q. What new perspectives do you have about QIS? A. Coming into this, I was skeptical because I didn’t know how impactful quantum was intended to be on a larger scale. I’d see articles where people were skeptical about its impact. But now I see that this research will bring about medical improvements and advanced data security. How important is that?!

Q. What’s next for you? A. I think I want to go into the industry because I’ve never had full-time job experience. For now, it’s all up in the air.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside of research? A. I love the idea of traveling, so being able to come to Chicago was unbelievable because I haven’t been anywhere outside of Baltimore. I also enjoy keeping my peers up to date on certain scholarships so they can get the same opportunities that I’ve had, so they don’t think that where they are is where they need to be forever.

Q. Any last thoughts? A. I want to extend my gratitude to the OQI Fellowship program. It has really been a very fruitful experience. I will always remember and appreciate those who made it possible for us underappreciated people.

About Q-NEXT

Q-NEXT is a U.S. Department of Energy National Quantum Information Science Research Center led by Argonne National Laboratory. Q-NEXT brings together world-class researchers from national laboratories, universities and U.S. technology companies with the goal of developing the science and technology to control and distribute quantum information. Q-NEXT collaborators and institutions have established two national foundries for quantum materials and devices, develop networks of sensors and secure communications systems, establish simulation and network test beds, and train the next-generation quantum-ready workforce to ensure continued U.S. scientific and economic leadership in this rapidly advancing field. For more information, visit https://​q​-next​.org/.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.