Quantum Information Science and Engineering (QUISE) opportunities for undergraduate students: My experience as an OQI Fellow

Ariadna
6 min readJan 26, 2023

Sometime in January of 2022, while scrolling through the Discord channel of a student club at my university, I stumbled upon the opportunity to apply to the Open Quantum Initiative Fellowship (OQI). Offered by the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the program’s goal is to expose students from underrepresented backgrounds to careers in quantum by providing a research experience alongside leading experts working at the forefront of quantum science.

The Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) is an intellectual hub for advancing the science and engineering of quantum information between the CQE community, across the Midwest, and around the globe.”

My first introduction to quantum computers was a TED Talk I came across by Dr. Shohini Ghose, titled “A beginner’s guide to quantum computing”. I was fascinated by the wonders of superposition and entanglement and the idea of building an incredibly powerful technology with a completely new approach and principles that we are still trying to fully understand. The potential to revolutionized industries and our systems of communication captivated my attention. I spent a good amount of time digging for articles and papers for a beginner like me to get a grasp of the technology. It seemed something so sophisticated that only longtime expert scientists were working on it, that’s why when I saw the opportunity to explore the quantum information science field as an undergrad, I did not hesitate one bit about applying.

March came around and I received an invitation to be part of the very first OQI Fellowship cohort! I would be working in the research group led by Professor Laura Gagliardi in the Chemistry Department at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. I was incredibly excited at the opportunity to spend my summer learning and exploring the quantum computing field beyond news articles and books. I couldn’t believe it!

As enthusiastic as I was, I was also a bit nervous because I didn’t really know what to expect and doubted if my limited knowledge about the field were sufficient to succeed in the program. However, as soon as the program started, I could feel the overwhelming support from the CQE team who wanted all fellows to make the most out of this experience and gave us advice and resources to prepare for careers in academia and industry.

Thanks to the OQI my summer had many memorable moments, and one of them was our trip to IBM Research headquarters in New York! We spent two days hearing from research scientists about their work and their journey to IBM. We took a tour of the facility and learned about some of the revolutionary developments that took place there. Among them, we got to see IBM Quantum System One which is the first circuit-based commercial quantum computer. It felt like meeting one of my favorite artists, I was starstruck!

IBM Q System One at Thomas J. Watson Research Center

After a great start, all fellows headed to their host institution for the summer. I headed to Chicago to meet my postdoctoral research mentor, and right away started learning about the work by the Gagliardi Group in the field of theoretical and computational chemistry. At first this was a bit intimidating, as I am a computer science student and chemistry is not my strongest suit. However soon after, with the support of my mentor and PI (Principal Investigator), I started to see the field with a new perspective full of fascination and curiosity.

During the first two and a half weeks, I was challenged with learning some of the principles in the field such as electronic structure theory, correlation energy and molecular quantum mechanics. I also studied the basic principles of quantum computing like qubits and gates, in addition to how the innovation of quantum computing can help solve classically
intractable chemistry problems.

I was then introduced to the classical-quantum algorithm LAS-UCC that computes the ground state energy of molecular systems. For the next couple of weeks, I ran calculations of the algorithm in a quantum computer simulator to test different VQE (Variational Quantum Eigensolver) optimizers. I compared the results to pure classical methods in search of the most appropriate optimizer that yielded accurate results in less time.

I worked with IBM’s open-source Qiskit SDK and ran the quantum simulations on high performance computing cluster. I learned so much by experimenting with the algorithm, collecting results, analyzing and visualizing the data to draw conclusions with the help of my mentor.

The Gagliardi Group in the Chemistry Department at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago

Throughout my summer, I attended lab meetings about ongoing projects with other research groups and projects in collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory, who are also spearheading quantum information research. It was a great experience to watch experts discuss results and next steps for the project, it provided me with good insight into how research is conducted and the mindset needed to navigate shortcomings that may arise.

We also had a OQI Virtual Speaker Series consisting of talks throughout the summer for all fellows to hear from inspiring current graduate students and professors talk about their experience, graduate school, how to apply, how to stand out and overall career advice.

Before the fellowship, I started to gain interest in pursuing a career in research, but I didn’t really know what that would look like. My time at the lab gave me an opportunity to experience firsthand what graduate school is and what the expectations and research work could look like. One of the most valuable things was the opportunity to chat with current PhD students about their experience and getting some inside advice about how to best navigate academia.

Before I knew it, my summer conducting research had come to an end and all fellows prepared for the OQI Fellowship Research Symposium, where we shared what we learned over the last 10-weeks and showcased the interesting projects we took part in. This was a memorable way to end the experience as graduate students, academia and industry CQE partners also attended and we got the opportunity to network. It was also a great way for us fellows to learn about each other’s experiences. There was a great variety of backgrounds, interests, skills and research projects and it gave me a wider perspective of what a career in QUISE could be.

My OQI experience had an a significant impact in the direction of my career. I went from casually reading about quantum computing in the tech news section, to envisioning myself working in the field. Not only that, it opened a door to vast resources, connections and opportunities. Another reason why my experience was really enjoyable, was that OQI ensures students have the resources necessary to fully immerse themselves in their research work by providing housing and a stipend to cover food costs and such.

After concluding the program, we all felt extremely thankful for the amazing summer experience overall. I took away knowledge that went beyond the scope of quantum research and I felt more confident and excited for the future of the industry. As I see commitment by CQE to push the boundaries of science, attract diverse talent, support startups and foster collaboration, I can confidently say that Chicago is the right place, and today the right time to join quantum.

Learn more about the OQI fellowship’s mission, research by other fellows and CQE here.

Chicago skyline as seen from the Chicago White Sox stadium

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