In this addition of ThinkQuantum we start our series (Interview-Q) of interviews with real quantum researchers to get their perspective on how to become a quantum scientist or engineer, what it’s like to work in the field of quantum information science (QIS), and what excites them most about QIS, physics, chemistry or science in general. This first Interview-Q is with Dr. Laura De Lorenzo who is a scientist at HRL Laboratories in Malibu California working on silicon quantum dot technologies. Dr. De Lorenzo will tell us what it takes to get a job like hers and what it’s like to be working in the private-sector on the cutting-edge of quantum computing.
JP: When you began studying physics, did you have an idea of the career path that you wanted to follow? When did become aware of the private sector opportunities in the QIS and what took you in this direction?
Dr. De Lorenzo: Throughout graduate school, I was aware that qubits were a topic of increasing interest to the physics community. I really wasn't aware until my closest friends starting their job searches just how many positions were available in the field of quantum information. Because my Ph.D. thesis was focused more on superfluid helium and opto-mechanics, I wasn't sure that I would be a good fit for these jobs. However, because the field is growing so quickly, people from a wide variety of experimental backgrounds have easily been able to make the switch to working on various types of qubit technologies. Qubits are fascinating for a lot of reasons, but I've always enjoyed working on hard technical problems.
JP: Could you tell us about one of these “hard technical” problems you’ve had to solve as a scientist and why you enjoy these kinds of challenges?
Dr. De Lorenzo: In my first year of graduate school, I started on building a new experimental setup. My Ph.D. advisor had an idea on paper about building an optomechanical system to observe high-Q acoustic modes in superfluid helium-4. In a nutshell, superfluid helium-4 would fill a cylindrical niobium cavity with a TE011 mode of around 11 GHz. Acoustic modes in the helium would couple to the niobium microwave modes by slightly modifying the dielectric constant within the cavity. This optomechanical coupling rate was expected to be very small, so I remember being nervous that it would be hard to find a signal from the helium modes. It took a couple of years of building and preparation before I was ready to to perform the first measurements. To overcome the small optomechanical coupling, we used a piezo from RadioShack to excite the acoustic modes. We used a lock-in amplifier to mix the acoustic signal down to DC, so that turning on and off the piezo would give us ring-up and ring-down curves of the mechanical oscillators. I remember the first time we measured the helium modes this way; I was very excited to see the idea become a physical reality!
JP: Was there anything special in your educational or professional path that took you to the job you have at HRL working on quantum computing?
Dr. De Lorenzo: No, I had a pretty typical path- undergrad, grad school, and then the job in industry.
JP: Is there anything you miss about being a physics student?
Dr. De Lorenzo: Yes, I miss the culture of the academic community. Going to conferences were people are generally open about their work is something to be cherished! Industry positions like mine are much more secretive and compartmentalized. Also, the freedom to collaborate with different people and groups is something you won't necessarily have in industry. On the other hand, industry can be much better funded, opening the door to really consistent production that will likely never be available in academic groups.
JP: Are there limits to what you can discuss publicly about your work now?
Dr. De Lorenzo: Yes, at a couple of different levels. Some information is proprietary, which protects HRL from its competitors, but there is also information which is classified to protect national security. This lack of free exchange of research is a stark difference from an academic environment and can definitely be a bit of a culture shock after graduate school.
JP: How has working outside of academia changed the way you think about science and/or scientists?
Dr. De Lorenzo: I think working in industry has given me more perspective on the strengths of an academic environment versus an industrial setting. The academic community has more freedom to explore ideas that are off-the-wall and may not pan out. They're also more nimble if it comes to switching directions. I think the price industrial groups pay for having professional processes with better qualities and yields is the momentum behind said processes. When you've invested many millions of dollars in something, it's harder to cut bait and go in a different direction. If a customer is paying you to make a specific product, you also lack the freedom to explore interesting science that may come up along the way.
JP: Do you work with many non-physicists? Has that affected the way you approach or view science?
Dr. De Lorenzo: Yes, I work with a lot of engineers. I don't know that it has changed my view on “science” per se, but the goal of making a consistent product is a lot different than the goal of demonstrating a new phenomenon as a one time experiment. In graduate school, I can remember a lot of focus on finding one 'hero' device that would have the necessary properties to perform the desired measurements. Working in industry, there is a lot more emphasis on reproducibility and efficiency. In some ways, I think this has given me more appreciation for the complete body of work that goes into a successful experiment. While physicists generally enjoy focusing on the nitty gritty details of the physics, in reality there is a lot of infrastructure, hardware, and software support required before you can begin to answer the scientific questions.
JP: What skills or traits do you think are most useful for someone looking to go in this career direction?
Dr. De Lorenzo: I think perseverance and openness to change are two of the most important traits. Perseverance is critical because unexpected problems can arise in any type of research and it can take years of marginal improvements to reach the original goals of a project. Solving one problem often just opens the window to finding another. At the same time, if the original plan for an experiment isn't working out, it's important to be flexible and open to alternate solutions or avenues of research. Even if an experiment is working well, there can often be other interesting directions to take the work.
JP: What non-physics skills do you find most useful in your current work?
Dr. De Lorenzo: People skills! (even though I don't claim to have any.) My graduate group was small and I often worked alone, but in my job at HRL I need to interact with many different people from different groups all day. Also, programming skills are widely applicable in my work. Depending on your academic group, you may get a lot of this experience in graduate school, but I personally didn't.
JP: Is there a need, or many job openings for physicists in your field?
Dr. De Lorenzo: Yes, there are lots of job openings in quantum information right now! In fact HRL is hiring if you'd like to move to Malibu!
JP: Finally, what are you currently looking forward to as a scientist/professional work in the field of QIS?
Dr. De Lorenzo: There is a lot of interest, money, and active research in qubit technologies right now. I'm excited to see where the field of quantum computing goes in the near future!