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Working toward a global community for quantum innovation

Kayla Lee

Co-founder of the

IBM HBCU Quantum Center

Recognized by the 2021 MIT Technology Review as one of 35 Innovators Under 35, Dr. Kayla Lee leads Academic Alliances for IBM Quantum and is helping to build a global quantum computing community. Kayla also co-founded the IBM HBCU Quantum Center, bringing together more than 500 students and faculty members at 27 historically Black colleges and universities to support research projects and develop careers in quantum computing. A former collegiate track athlete, Kayla still sets a vigorous pace, speaking at dozens of events each year.

How would you describe your work in quantum computing?

The IBM Quantum team is bringing quantum computers to the market so we can solve certain classes of problems that are intractable on classical computers. I am part of the IBM Partner Ecosystem team, where my main role is working with strategic academic partners on how they can use our systems and how we can apply their research to develop the quantum computing technology stack.

You have a PhD in biology, but you work in technology. Why did you make that move?

I am a biologist by training and I started my IBM career with the Healthcare and Life Science Group. But soon after that, I learned that IBM was building a quantum computing consulting group to work with enterprise clients. It became clear to me that quantum computing is the big thing for my generation. There is the same level of excitement and sense of discovery that happened when artificial intelligence and nanotechnology became big things.

Thinking about quantum computing as a different computation model and about the problems quantum could solve represents so much opportunity for people from many different backgrounds. We have no idea where quantum computers might have the biggest impact, and to be at the forefront of this technology at a company that is leading the way — I don’t think you could ask for a better combination.

Can you tell me about your work with Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)?

My experience as an HBCU undergraduate student inspired me to go into science research and the technology career I have today. When I started working with quantum computing, two big questions came up: what steps do we need to take to ensure that more people will get involved in the future quantum ecosystem, and how can we take a group of HBCU schools with great talent pools and start introducing this technology to them?

Something like this has always been in my head and the idea continued to grow when I connected with other people on Twitter to chat and catch up on research. Then I met Dr. Michaela Amoo, a professor at Howard University, and had conversations with her about creating a space for students that felt like a community. That inspired us to build what we now call the IBM HBCU Quantum Center. Dr. Amoo is now director of the Center.

At IBM, we have a big commitment to an open-source, community-first mission because we will be more successful when we are open to diverse thinking, disciplines and individuals who can contribute to what the future looks like. Being able to launch the Center, manage academic partners and speak to so many different audiences has been a career milestone for me. These are things I am always excited to talk about.

Who’s been your role model in the STEM field?

My dad. He’s an engineer who worked at IBM for over 30 years. I always used to tell him that I wanted to be an IBM executive. We were the classic “IBM…I’ve Been Moved” family and we lived all over the United States when I was growing up.

When you’re not thinking about quantum, what do you do in your down time?

I enjoy drawing and painting abstract portraits. I also grow more than 50 plants in my apartment — 90 percent of which are tropical. When I travel, one of my favorite things to do is to see how my plant varieties thrive in their real-world, natural environments.

Where’s your biggest source of creative inspiration?

I am constantly inspired by the students I work with. They reinvigorate me and remind me of why I do the things I do. Students are going through the process of discovery and engagement, and they look at the world through that bright-eyed perspective. They are excited about the new things coming from quantum computing and I always learn from them.

For example, I met a student at an event last year and we talked about quantum computing. Now he’s applying for PhD programs, and he recently sent me a post about the research he is doing. This is the best part of my job by far because it goes beyond IBM and selling technology. Having an impact on research or helping someone get a job are career-defining moments. These are the things that keep me excited to work in this space.

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