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For more than a century, mathematicians and physicists have studied and modeled the motions and interactions of subatomic particles. In the 1970s, researchers began to explore how that study of quantum physics could be linked to information technology which, they theorized, could one day open the door to a new age of quantum computing.
Today, IBM research teams around the world—from New York and California to Switzerland and Japan—are hard at work developing this technology, which will extend beyond the powers of the digital computers we use today and offer the potential to tackle previously unsolvable problems.
The IBM Quantum team includes a growing cohort of women. They’re engaged in every part of the research. A few of their areas of focus: manufacturing the qubits, the basic units of quantum information; creating superconducting architectures for experimentation in the field; studying the patterns of the qubits to detect errors; and designing stabilizing systems keep them in check. At the same time, other researchers are exploring the startling capabilities and use cases of quantum computing in fields such as medicine and materials science, where quantum devices can simulate molecules.
In recognition of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we spoke with four women carrying out crucial roles in the quantum computing revolution.
Quantum at Ground Zero
Mary Beth Rothwell, Senior Engineer, Manager: Quantum Fabrication Research, IBM Research
One day in early 2007, Mary Beth Rothwell got a call inviting her to dive into something entirely new. She had been at IBM for nearly 20 years, and had experience in building nearly every part of a computer. With e-beam lithography, her teams patterned integrated circuits. From there she’d moved on to flat-panel display, and then to the back end, or “packaging,” of devices.
Now, one of IBM’s quantum pioneers, Roger Koch, was assembling a small group to build the first quantum computers. He wanted Rothwell on the team. After all, she knew how to build things. “They needed help moving the fabrication of the small devices to the mainstream fabrication line here in Yorktown,” she says.
Quantum has since grown from a small team into a major effort at IBM, and Rothwell is one of its leaders, serving as a senior engineer and manager of quantum fabrication at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Her team produces the quantum bits, or qubits, the basic sub-atomic units of a quantum computer that process information. IBM’s qubits are made of superconducting circuit elements such as aluminum Josephson junctions and niobium capacitors. Working with IBM Research’s material research lab, she and her colleagues are responsible for every device that gets measured, tested and deployed.
“This is the biggest team effort I’ve ever worked on, and the most gratifying,” she says. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction to help the people on my team, both the engineers and the physicists, grow.”
Rothwell’s management position is especially rewarding, she says, because she’s in two minorities at IBM Research. She’s a woman, and she’s a manager without a Ph.D. Traditionally, she says, research management positions across the technology industry have gone to Ph.D.s, and the great majority of leaders, reflecting the industry as a whole, have been men. Rothwell views her position as a recognition that the company values her experience, knowledge and people skills.
While Rothwell’s team produces the physical qubits, IBM researcher Hanhee Paik has spent more than a decade improving the quality of these minuscule particles. Her research focus has been on understanding and improving coherence mechanisms of superconducting qubits, and on developing novel superconducting multi-qubit architectures.
Hanhee Paik, Research Staff Member, Experimental Quantum Computing, IBM Research
Paik grew up in South Korea and attended Yonsei University in Seoul, where she earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics. For her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Maryland in 2009, Paik came up with a new design and fab process that improved coherence of superconducting phase qubits. “I had to figure out how to design and fabricate a qubit, in-house, because, at the time, we didn’t have access to the foundry we typically used. Ironically, the simplest design produced the best coherence,” says Paik, an Experimental Quantum Computing Scientist at IBM Research. “Hardware and measurement have been my areas of expertise ever since.”
As a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University in 2009, Paik continued studying these coherence mechanisms. She pioneered the groundbreaking design of a 3D transmon qubit, as part of a team working on superconducting qubits, resulting in coherence times nearly two orders of magnitude longer than previously possible. Coherence time—the amount of time qubits are capable of performing calculations—had been measured in a few microseconds prior to Paik’s work, which created qubits that could retain superposition for dozens of microseconds.
Paik’s success with the 3D transmon brought her a lot of attention, which she says had a disorienting effect on her research. “That research was something I hadn’t expected to achieve so soon in my career, and for a while I felt overshadowed by such a big discovery.”
Paik joined IBM Research in 2014 and found new goals to keep her career moving forward, such as understanding the physics of multi-qubit systems. She played an instrumental role in developing the company’s 16-qubit IBM Quantum Experience computer. And IBM’s commercial 20-qubit systems’ coherence times likewise benefit from Paik’s work, averaging an industry-best 100 microseconds.
The past few years have also marked a high point for women researchers in quantum computing. “For the first 10 years of my career, I was the only female in many places I worked,” Paik says. “When I joined IBM, Mary Beth Rothwell and Sarah Sheldon were my first two female colleagues—ever. But more women scientists and engineers are joining quantum computing research, and the IBM Quantum team is one of the most diverse groups in the industry.”
Paik notes that there is still much more work to be done to bring women into the field of quantum computing and research, in general. “We have to support girls’ interest in science at an early age,” she says. “In the workplace, an organizational push from the top down is needed to make sure more women are given opportunities to demonstrate their abilities, are invited to speak about their research at conferences, and are recognized for their successes.”
Maika Takita, Experimental Quantum Computing Scientist, IBM Research
While Paik optimizes qubits, her colleague Maika Takita focuses on error reduction.
Takita specializes in the control, characterization, and benchmarking of multi-qubit quantum system and works towards implementation of fault tolerant quantum error correction codes on a lattice.
Every type of computing, Takita says, is prone to errors. But detecting errors and anomalies in the erratic behavior of qubits is a far greater challenge than in the simpler realm of ones and zeros. After all, qubits can assume two different states at the same time. And even in ideal conditions at nearly absolute zero, they peter out in a fraction of a second, their energy draining into the environment. This complexity fuels the vast potential of quantum computing, but also makes Takita’s job infinitely more challenging.
As an experimentalist, Takita studies and registers quantum behavior. “I’m in the lab, cooling down the device and measuring qubits,” she says. The most powerful quantum computer will rely on using logical qubits that will contain many fragile physical qubits to apply quantum error corrections during the computation, Takita says. “While we still need to work on reducing error rates associated with physical qubits, we are at a stage where we have large enough system so that we can start investigating how fault tolerant quantum error correcting code works experimentally.”
Born in Tokyo, Takita went to boarding school in the United States, and later studied at Barnard College in New York, majoring in physics and math. She went on to Princeton for her Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and earned her postdoc five years ago at IBM.
In her first years at IBM, she says, she enjoyed rock climbing with IBM colleagues. Then she and her husband had a baby boy. Now that their son is two, she’s hoping to get back into climbing. Like quantum computing, it involves superpositions and entanglements—but at a far more comfortable temperature.
Quantum Computing Catalyst
Jamie Garcia, Senior Manager for Quantum Applications, Algorithms and Theory, IBM Research
Jamie Garcia’s role at IBM Research combines her passions for chemistry and computing. Since late 2018, she has led a team of researchers examining how to apply quantum to the chemistry of simulating molecules and molecular interactions. In 2019, she started a new role in which she leads a broad and diverse team that works on quantum theory, software, and applications. “The role didn’t exist, because the technology wasn’t accessible,” Garcia says of her position as senior manager of Quantum Applications, Algorithms and Theory. “We’re forging a new path in terms of figuring out what’s needed with theory to get real value out of the quantum computers IBM is building.”
Garcia joined IBM Research’s Almaden lab in 2012 as a postdoctoral researcher with a particular interest in studying how chemical catalysts could be used to break down plastic bottles for recycling. At the time she worked with James Hedrick, an IBM expert in polymers, on high-performance and recyclable materials. As the daughter of a math professor father and a risk-management lawyer mother, Garcia’s interest in science and the environment grew organically from her upbringing—for instance, her mother waters her garden using rainwater she collects in barrels.
Garcia studied biochemistry as an undergraduate at Seattle University and received her Ph.D. in chemistry from Boston College. She’s since gone on to author nearly 40 peer-reviewed scientific papers, receive 94 patents and earn the title of IBM Master Inventor, along with numerous industry honors and accolades.
Garcia’s initial interest in quantum computing arose from a chance encounter in 2017 with quantum researcher Abhinav Kandala at Yorktown. At the time, she had been studying chemical reaction pathways for lithium–air batteries. In between meetings she struck up a conversation with Kandala at a lab poster session that covered quantum computers being used to calculate dissociation profiles for different molecules. Such calculations a had never been demonstrated on real quantum computers. “I realized then that quantum computers could be a new tool for performing complex calculations in ways not available to researchers today,” she says.
She’s now hoping that quantum computers can serve as a catalyst to new discoveries in chemistry. Garcia also hopes that she can serve as a similar catalyst for young women interested in careers in science and technology. “I remember being in grad school and trying to find role models in the fields I was interested in; there weren’t that many,” Garcia recalls. “The more women are able to find themselves in leadership roles in technology and science, the better because it allows young women to look ahead and see someone they can emulate.”
This post is presented by The Watson Women’s Network, a community of technical staff, primarily based at the T.J. Watson Research Center, that seeks to encourage a workplace environment that advances the professional effectiveness, individual growth, recognition, and advancement of all women at IBM Research. The WWN partners with senior management, human resources and other diversity network groups to promote programs in mentoring, networking, diversity, knowledge sharing and recruiting.
Quantum starts here