By Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Senior Technical Writer, Qiskit
There’s a common refrain in the field of quantum computing that there’s not enough talent and expertise. Talent and expertise exists, but for many, entering such a new field can be daunting without the help of mentors or a community. Students and researchers around the world are forging their own paths into the quantum world by forming clubs and communities on their own.
Despite the field’s desire for expertise, universities often reserve quantum computing classes for higher-level physics students, and career-finding resources might not advertise jobs in the field of quantum technology. But learning quantum computing has few prerequisites beyond linear algebra and basic programming — Qiskit events frequently feature hobbyists, undergraduates, and even high schoolers eager to join the field, for example. For many, quantum clubs outside of universities or research labs have become an easier way to get their feet in the door, network with quantum researchers, and build up their credentials to pursue a quantum career.
“Our Quantum Computing Club was the most important thing for ensuring that we had the correct connections with faculty, experience with the different quantum computing platforms, and to just help each other make sure we all knew what we were doing,” said Samarth Sandeep, an undergraduate and one of the founders of the Quantum Computing Club at the University of California, Davis.
The Quantum Computing Club at UC Davis started back in 2018 after Sandeep and his classmates attended a hackathon hosted by the quantum computing startup Rigetti at its headquarters in Berkeley, California. The Davis team lagged behind the competition, even behind the high schoolers, in terms of their quantum computing knowledge. Sandeep realized that many of the other groups had come from organized quantum computing clubs, where they could talk about how qubits work, try out different quantum computing software development kits, and discuss the concepts behind quantum mechanics prior to the competition.
Meanwhile, Duke undergraduates Norah Tan and Catherine Liang realized that there was a large, interdisciplinary group of undergraduate researchers working on quantum topics, but not much of a community around the field. Even those interested in quantum computing struggled to find direction — the school’s career fairs rarely had opportunities related to quantum sciences advertised for undergrads. The two are in the midst of starting a club of their own.
“We want to point people in the right direction instead of having to navigate themselves,” Liang said.
What do quantum clubs do?
As part of the Quantum Computing Club at UC Davis’ activities, the students put together documentation and tutorials for one another on important quantum topics, and they’re beginning to take on group projects to build applications using quantum computing programming languages like Qiskit. For one project, Sandeep and the other club members wrote an algorithm that can turn complex 2D and 3D molecules, like proteins, into a simpler map, and then show how to optimally represent that map on one of IBM’s quantum processors. They’ve begun sharing the mapping package publicly on GitHub.
Tan and Liang plan on hosting courses on quantum information sciences, without the strictness of university courses, as they try to introduce more of their peers into the field and show them what research in quantum technology looks like. They also hope to organize lunches and advising sessions with professors, plus lectures and hackathons for students who are interested in testing the quantum waters.
Quantum club activities can extend far beyond the walls of one institution, too. At IIIT Hyderabad in India, the club doesn’t just organize its own hackathons and talks, but has gotten involved in the larger IndiQ quantum computing community seeking to make India quantum-ready. Club member Utkarsh Azad explained that his group has already hosted events with hundreds of people, allowing them to interact not only with fellow quantum-interested students, but also industry representatives interested in quantum hardware. This era of remote work has even allowed clubs to extend their reach worldwide: the Oxford University Quantum Information Society in the United Kingdom welcomes anyone to follow them on Facebook and attend their club activities.
What are the benefits?
The quantum club members I spoke to agreed that forming a club offered them an air of legitimacy that allowed them to speak directly with world-class researchers they might not have had access to otherwise. The Oxford University Quantum Information Society only started this year, but has already hosted well-known quantum computing experts like Chiara Marletto, Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Chris Monroe, and Scott Aaronson for lectures.
“Imagine if you could speak to Einstein or Picasso if you were an artist,” said Aleksei Malyshev, a rising second-year DPhil student and president of the Oxford University Quantum Information Society. “This is the same for me.”
Making all of those connections can be useful for students hoping to pursue quantum technology as a career. Duke has plenty of quantum researchers, including those who have started their own companies, Tan said, and she hopes that the club at Duke will expose the field’s career possibilities to more undergraduates.
Meeting other quantum-interested folks outside of work or the classroom is also an opportunity to create local, national, and international quantum computing communities. These forums allow students and researchers to grow, connect, and share information to push the entire field forward. “Creating a community will improve the research already being done,” said Caroline de Groot, Ph.D student at the Max-Planck-Institute for Quantum Optics in Germany and Co-op on the IBM Quantum and Qiskit Growth and Identity team. She hopes that hosting targeted meetups between quantum-interested folks in Germany will not only be fun, but will unite diverse voices in the field around quantum technology.
How do you start a quantum club of your own?
Starting a quantum club doesn’t require quantum knowledge as much as it does confidence, said Malyshev. He has learned the importance of staying organized, taking responsibility, and managing his time in order to get lecturer invites out on time. These are skills that research experience alone might not have brought, while the quantum knowledge comes later during the actual club activities.
Utkarsh suggested starting from the basics, and to avoid getting intimidated by well-known professors or challenging concepts. Sandeep hopes to get his own university faculty more involved, since the club is presently a student-driven effort. “A lot of our faculty think that quantum computing is really out of their realm, while students are picking up Qiskit because IBM is making it so easy for us to learn,” he said. “We’re teaching our professors about quantum and ways to use current quantum computers.”
You don’t need to be at a university, either; plenty of quantum computing groups have organized organically on websites Facebook and Meetup.com. There are challenges that come with hosting remote events or events with folks with disparate backgrounds — challenges like simply breaking the ice. De Groot suggests using differences to your advantage, having club members introduce themselves on a personal level by sharing pictures or slides including details from their lives during presentations.
Ultimately, entering the field of quantum computing doesn’t require a physics Ph.D as much as it requires a desire to learn and a way to connect with those already working in the field. If those resources aren’t readily available to you, don’t fret; there are plenty of people eager to learn and enter the field of quantum computing alongside you.