This article is also available in Spanish: “La curiosidad por la informática cuántica.“
The Quantum Systems Accelerator (QSA) assembles a broad breadth of talent from 15 member institutions, many of whom have pioneered today’s quantum information science (QIS) and technology capabilities. QSA is a National QIS Research Center funded by the United States Department of Energy Office of Science. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month in the U.S., five researchers affiliated with QSA shared what first sparked their interest in quantum physics. Perhaps, more importantly, they all stressed the importance of being attentive to the tiny sparks of curiosity, which might come from the unlikeliest sources of inspiration: a university lecture, a chance encounter with a professor, or a book.
Adjoint Professor, University of Colorado Boulder
JILA Fellow, NIST Fellow
Ana Maria Rey, a world-renowned theoretical physicist from Bogota, Colombia, has built a prolific career for over two decades. Rey’s research in atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physics contributed to the most accurate atomic clock ever developed. She continues to advance the techniques for controlling quantum systems in novel ways and applying them to quantum simulations, information, and metrology.
Rey’s prominence in pushing the boundaries of theoretical physics has earned her several prestigious accolades, such as the MacArthur Fellowship and Presidential Early Career Award in 2013. In addition, Rey is the first Hispanic woman to win the Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists in 2019. However, her early journey in physics met an unlikely source of resistance: her family.
“My fascination with physics began in high school in Colombia, thanks to a physics teacher who promoted my initial interest in using mathematical formulas to describe nature. There were few professional opportunities for the field at that time, so my parents opposed me pursuing a career in physics,” said Rey.
Despite her parent’s objections, Rey majored in physics as an undergraduate at the Universidad de Los Andes and pursued a focus in non-linear optics and general relativity. Rey had a clear idea of what she thought she wanted to specialize in for her doctorate at the University of Maryland, but a lecture changed her direction.
“I wanted to continue studying non-linear optics, but at that time, the atomic physics that we do now was not popular. It was just starting to mature. So, for the Ph.D. program, I was offered a fellowship to study non-linear equations in plasma, which was the closest thing to non-linear optics. During my studies, though, I was struck by a lecture by Bill Phillips, Nobel Prize in Physics. As Phillips explained how he manipulated cold atoms with lasers, I changed what I wanted to do,” she said.
Rey’s research has been cited thousands of times in the scientific literature. She believes there are transferable methods and techniques across different quantum technologies.
“The concepts to model a quantum system can be applied globally in different disciplines or help establish a synergy between the theories connecting completely different experiments. So, for example, even though you are talking about the same models or Hamiltonians, the language you use from one technology to another is different. Generally, this language barrier is often reduced simply by collaborating and studying systems and mathematical techniques to connect different regimes and develop unifying ways to explain specific behaviors.”
Research Assistant Professor, University of New Mexico
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pablo Poggi is a theoretical physicist specializing in quantum control methods to counteract and tailor unwanted noise, environmental effects, and errors in quantum devices and atomic systems. He studies the commonalities shared by different quantum technologies and develops hardware-agnostic, unified theoretical models to build, run, and benchmark quantum simulation devices.
Poggi notes that a high school physics teacher was pivotal in encouraging him to study relativity and quantum mechanics. Nurturing a love for math and its connection with physics early on, Poggi undertook his undergraduate and doctorate degrees at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, one of Latin America’s largest and most prominent public research universities.
“Latin America has a robust and important academic tradition. I was very exposed to state-of-the-art quantum physics science at my university because many groups were working on this. However, I did my doctorate in a somewhat risky way because I had no contact with any experimental group. And when I had to define which specific quantum technology to specialize in, I decided to take an alternative. That is, to learn a little about all the general and unified methods that would apply to several technologies. And that was very useful to me in my work in the U.S.,” said Poggi.
Poggi moved to the U.S. to first work as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico. He’s been a research assistant professor and QSA collaborator since 2020.
Noting the difference in approaching problems and experiments in QSA’s collaborative ecosystem, Poggi said: “In college, I was always used to working alone or in compact groups putting together a vision to publish or highlight results in a conference or workshop, maybe once a year. In contrast, thanks to the frequent meetings and exchanges with QSA partner institutions, I am up to date with the critical questions and advances in the field quickly and immediately.”
Research Fellow, MIT
Research Scientist, QuEra Computing Inc.
Sergio Cantu is an experimental physicist specializing in atomic physics and quantum optics. During his doctorate studies, Cantu was a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As part of his student fellowship, Cantu participated in QSA-funded research at MIT by using Rydberg atoms in a tightly focused optical trap to to study how photon-photon interactions can be used to generate new quantum light states for quantum information processing. In addition to continuing to contribute to QSA research at MIT, Cantu also works at QuEra Computing. This Boston-based quantum computing startup evolved from the leading-edge research in neutral atoms at MIT and Harvard University. El Mundo Boston named Cantu as one of the 30 under 30 most influential Latino leaders thanks to his work inspiring young generations of scientists in underrepresented communities.
“What I like the most about my work is when I do experiments. You can do the theoretical research, but the atoms, and in my case, light, will always show you if your assumptions are correct. Atoms are more unbiased, and because they are such a basic thing that we see every day, understanding that dynamic has always fascinated me,” said Cantu
His passion for studying atoms and light using the laws of quantum mechanics dates back to his undergraduate years at the University of Texas at Brownsville, close to the border with Mexico. Cantu was one of the few students in his community pursuing degrees in math and physics.
“The journey was more or less a gamble. When I was accepted into an optics laboratory at the university, where I only worked with lasers, I thought this was like magic. But as I continued studying, quantum physics caught my attention,” he said.
Cantu mentioned how QSA’s organizational structure has allowed him to quickly raise questions to other experts in different areas at partner institutions for potential experimental overlap. Furthermore, being part of industry, Cantu also recognizes a tipping point in the field’s growth, where engineering systems and assessing scalability come into greater focus.
“In a laboratory, I believe that the experiments are still constructed in a half Frankenstein-fashion with inherent fragility. But when conducting experiments and engineering prototypes as industry, you have to interact with vendors and consider other factors of production,” said Cantu.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University
Mexican-born experimental physicist Elmer Guardado-Sanchez is happiest when he’s fabricating quantum systems to test novel research ideas. Currently a postdoc at Harvard University, Guardado explores ways to build quantum processors by integrating Rydberg arrays of single atoms in optical tweezers with optical cavities.
“What excites me the most when studying something I don’t yet understand is the moment I first realize why our measurements might look the way they look and why it happens in a particular way. In other words, I build these complex systems that, due to the simple fact of their level of complexity, are going to exhibit different effects that are sometimes not expected,” said Guardado.
Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, Guardado often participated in high-school-level physics olympiads. He was always sure of his interest in pursuing a career in physics, but he remembered how frequently others asked him how he would find work. In the city where he grew up, with a burgeoning industrial and business center, there weren’t many research professors who advanced experimental work and hired a high-school student simultaneously.
Guardado achieved national and international recognition in these competitions, deciding to undertake his undergraduate degree at MIT. However, it has not been a linear path to quantum information. First, he studied cold atoms at MIT. Still, it was until his doctorate program at Princeton University, where he started working on quantum simulation, that he considered working broadly in the quantum technology field.
“It was a bit of luck initially, as I was looking for someone to do undergraduate research based on what caught my attention. I liked the quantum field because it is very varied and open, featuring lasers, magnetic fields, vacuum chambers, and many more tools and applications,” he said.
Guardado is interested in seeing how the experimental integration of different quantum technologies, such as those being studied and developed at QSA – trapped ions, neutral atoms, and superconducting circuits – can ultimately pave the way for larger systems that may leverage modularity.
Ph.D. candidate, University of Colorado Boulder
Diego Barberena is a graduate student from Lima, Peru, who studies quantum metrology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Barberena joined Rey’s group at JILA in 2017, and he’s excited by the experimental and theoretical possibilities in the research and development of cold atom systems. He collaborated with researchers across disciplines and scientific institutes in the U.S. to demonstrate a quantum sensor composed of 150 beryllium ions with a record-setting sensitivity.
“From a theoretical point of view, it helps a lot to have these experimental collaborations. For example, we pay closer attention to specific problems we can test with the quantum technologies currently available. In the same way, there are many ideas that we have been working on that can serve as feedback for future experiments,” said Barberena.
Barberena’s scientific journey is similar to others in QSA, where an initial curiosity led him to new fields of study. For example, he was first interested in quantum physics thanks to a professor at the Universidad Católica del Perú who worked on experiments with photons and quantum entanglement. After that, Barberena continued researching the state of quantum technologies by looking up conferences and broader networks in Latin America that could give him a glimpse of the long-term research questions.
“It was not a clear path because there was no definitive guide, and I share these experiences with many international colleagues. It has been quite random, actually, because when I was studying at the university, there was not even a widespread notion of this field of research where scientists developed different models and hardware devices for quantum information and simulations,” he said.
Thanks to the support of a Peruvian professor, Barberena continued to acquire more experience in this field until he applied for a doctorate at the University of Colorado. With QSA, he hopes to continue to have constant contact with the broader quantum community through regular meetings and conversations, which is quicker than waiting for a preprint.
Being Open to Opportunities Set New Directions
QSA’s cutting-edge quantum research and development thrive in a diverse ecosystem with scientists and engineers from broad backgrounds. Rey, Poggi, Cantu, Guardado, and Barberena recalled that being curious and open-minded helped them discover new opportunities in a fast-growing field they hadn’t initially considered. The tiny sparks of curiosity which sparked their interest became defining moments for professional advancement and self-realization despite the sources of resistance. Now, as researchers affiliated with QSA, they are pioneering the advances in basic quantum information science research, thus paving the way for scientific applications that benefit the world.
QSA champions diversity, representation, and inclusiveness at all levels to catalyze innovation and foster cooperation. To continue to read about the Quantum Systems Accelerator’s efforts to reach the broadest range of talent and prepare the new quantum workforce, visit: Our Ecosystem.
Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 16 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. DOE’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, please visit energy.gov/science.
Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory operated by National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia Labs has major research and development responsibilities in nuclear deterrence, global security, defense, energy technologies and economic competitiveness, with main facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Livermore, California.
The Quantum Systems Accelerator (QSA) is one of the five National Quantum Information Science Research Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. Led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and with Sandia National Laboratories as lead partner, QSA will catalyze national leadership in quantum information science to co-design the algorithms, quantum devices, and engineering solutions needed to deliver certified quantum advantage in scientific applications. QSA brings together dozens of scientists who are pioneers of many of today’s unique quantum engineering and fabrication capabilities. In addition to industry and academic partners across the world, 15 institutions are part of QSA: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, University of Colorado at Boulder, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Caltech, Duke University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, UC Berkeley, University of Maryland, University of New Mexico, University of Southern California, UT Austin, and Canada’s Université de Sherbrooke. For more information, please visit https://quantumsystemsaccelerator.org/