From Artsy Kid to Quantum Scientist: The Power of Creativity in Quantum
By Kaitlin N. Smith, quantum researcher and recent alum of the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) IBM Postdoctoral Training Program
This year, I got a chance to bring my love of quantum education to a surprising place: The 2022 Chicago Comic Book & Entertainment Expo.
I spent that weekend volunteering at a Star Trek-themed booth, where we led young learners through a series of kid-friendly photonics demos. We showed them how polarizing filters can block certain waves of light, and how light travels differently through materials based on their refractive index, among other things. I have many happy memories from that weekend — memories of the endless parade of colorful and fantastical costumes and of kids at our booth shouting “we love science!” after a successful demo. However, the moment that really stood out for me was more bittersweet.
I was explaining my own love of science to a high school student, a shy young woman who reminded me a great deal of myself when I was a teenager. Maybe that sense of recognition is the reason she was able to break my heart with a single sentence.
“I don’t really see myself as a scientist,” she said.
These were painful words to hear. In part, that’s because science, and particularly quantum information science, is my passion. I’m someone who can truly say that IBM putting a quantum computer on the cloud changed my life. Cloud-enabled quantum computing allowed me to discover my love of the field, and that discovery has brought me amazing opportunities.
But there’s another reason that young woman’s words stuck with me. Like her, I also didn’t see myself as a scientist when I was a kid — and frankly, neither did anybody else. I was more the “creative type.” I never fit cultural stereotypes of the budding young scientist. Luckily, I was able to find my way into the field I love anyway. But months after meeting that student, I can’t help but wonder: How many kids today are missing out on opportunities in quantum because they don’t think they look the part?
The unexpected scientist
Today, I’m a quantum researcher and a recent alum of the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) IBM Postdoctoral Training Program. It’s a wonderful initiative dedicated to educating the next generation of quantum scientists through mentoring and research opportunities provided by IBM and CQE member institutions like the University of Chicago, where I was based. Prior to arriving in Chicago, I earned my bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering, alongside a bachelor’s in mathematics.
If you traveled back in time to my high school years and explained all this to those who knew me best, they probably wouldn’t have believed you. I liked music and fashion. I was a member of my high school dance team. I spent more time executing complex group choreography at football games than disassembling the TV or running homegrown science experiments. Sure, I did well in STEM subjects, but it really wasn’t until college that I discovered my passion for science and engineering.
I was fortunate to never experience any overt sexism or discrimination personally as I began pursuing my STEM education more seriously, but I still met obstacles. Electrical engineering is very much a boys club, and I quickly discovered how intimidating it can be to walk into a classroom where you’re the only woman. At the same time, introductory courses often seemed designed to “weed out” less confident students. The subtext was always: “If you don’t feel like you belong here, you’re probably right.”
These environments didn’t scare me away, but I know many students have a different experience. They think there’s no room in STEM for people who don’t look and act or certain way, or for people who enjoy creativity and self-expression. And of course, physics also has a history of excluding people who are different — especially women and people of color. Unfortunately, there are clearly still scientists and science educators out there who feel the same way, since those trends still continue today.
There was a time in my life when I worried that those voices might be right. Now I know that my differences aren’t just a non-issue in my career; they’re an advantage.
The power of creativity and other soft skills in quantum research
The quantum community has much to gain from researchers with diverse perspectives, skills and interests. Take my own work for example. Most people see my research as being extremely technical, but to me it’s nothing but creativity.
I think of myself as a quantum computer architect — I enjoy performing comprehensive analyses of quantum computing systems and discovering ways to improve their performance. Some of my work centers on quantum circuit compilation, and on the optimization steps we perform to make running quantum algorithms more efficient. We use quantum circuits to translate quantum algorithms into the concrete instructions that quantum hardware will execute. However, there are many different kinds of quantum hardware, and each system has different constraints that must be accounted for as a technology-unaware algorithm is transformed into an executable form.
Those who write quantum circuits don’t want to spend time learning the quirks of every system they might use; they just want to focus on the algorithmic problem at hand. That’s why we write quantum circuits in a higher-level language designed for a sort of idealized quantum computer, and then use automated quantum circuit compilation routines to add the hardware-specific instructions we need to translate our circuits into something a quantum computer can run. The research I do looks both at how we can design these routines to make current hardware perform better, and how we can co-design future hardware that increase the odds that a quantum algorithm will run successfully.
This work is endlessly creative. It requires the constant weighing of tradeoffs that have no clear “best” solution. When designing future devices, for example, we could make quantum processor chips much bigger to fit more qubits, but bigger chips are more likely to have defects. We can design smaller, modular chips that connect together — but how do we find the right size? How do we determine which quantum chips out of many options should be used in the system? How do we connect them so the benefits of smaller chips are not outweighed by the challenges of communicating across multiple chips?
Scientific facts and raw calculations only get me so far when I’m grappling with these questions. I also have to rely on my creative instincts. These instincts give me the ability to draw connections between ideas and concepts that may at first seem unrelated. These connections — inspiration taken from classical computing, from industry thought leadership like the IBM Quantum Roadmap, and from the world around us — are what lead to innovations like the idea of scaling quantum computers through smaller, modular chiplets, which is a concept borrowed from classical computing. They play a big role in helping us engineer novel solutions to ambiguous or seemingly impenetrable problems.
Quantum for all
Research is inherently collaborative, and we all bring our unique perspectives and secret superpowers to the table. That’s why we need everyone in the quantum community — the nerdy kids, the artsy kids, the kids who never fit in any one category, and of course, folks from underrepresented backgrounds. If we want fresh perspectives and diverse skill sets to push quantum science forward, then we have to show the world that quantum is for everyone.
But to do that, we must get rid of the enduring myth which tells us that the only successful scientists are those who forego all other parts of their identity. We have to show people that you can have a strong identity and be an amazing scientist. We need to double down on efforts to increase diversity, so no one ever has to wonder whether science belongs only to those who fit in a particular demographic. If we can do these things, I think we will start to see a much wider variety of people entering the field.
As for the high school student who told me she didn’t see herself as a scientist, we kept talking. I encouraged her to experiment with our photonics demos. I told her about my own story, and explained that scientists have never been just one kind of person. I don’t know where she ended up, or what she’s planning to do with her life now, but at least I can say one thing: she went home that day with a much more expansive definition of what, and who, a scientist really is.