CQE IBM postdoc program trains next-generation quantum workforce with industry

In graduate school, Kate Smith couldn’t stop thinking about how she could help create the most useful applications for quantum machines.

After graduating with her PhD in electrical engineering, Smith knew she wanted to continue learning about how to use quantum devices. As she searched for a postdoctoral research position, she came across the Chicago Quantum Exchange’s IBM Postdoctoral Trainees Program, which educates the next generation of scientists through mentoring, independence, and opportunities across both Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) member institutions and the IBM Q Network.

The program accepts both experimentalists and theorists. Selected researchers will investigate materials, fabrication techniques, algorithms, and software and hardware development that will enable us to fully realize and scale quantum computers in the coming years.

Smith, who was accepted into the program last year, said it is a great opportunity to work with many different research groups across academia, industry, and national labs.

“I’m able to connect with so many different scientists and sources of knowledge, and I’m excited to learn more and grow professionally,” she said.

A collaborative postdoc across institutions and industry

Quantum engineering has the potential to transform financial, transportation and logistics, and pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, but jobs within the field require specific knowledge of quantum science and its applications.

“A quantum workforce that is able to bridge university and industry research will speed the development of real-world quantum applications,” said Kate Timmerman, executive director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. “Through the CQE IBM program, postdocs collaborate with IBM researchers and develop a professional network within academia and industry.”

While postdoctoral programs are common among individual research institutions, a program that facilitates collaboration between a large network and an industry partner such as IBM is unique. The program was officially launched in 2019, with the goal of funding five postdoctoral researchers at a time. PhD graduates who apply have conversations with investigators across CQE to learn more about their area of research interest and how their interests would align with existing academic research programs and research efforts at IBM. Accepted postdocs are then provided with annual discretionary funds and the freedom to work with different research groups across the CQE and can be based at any CQE member institution.

Creating the future of quantum technology

As a postdoc, Smith is now working to develop algorithms for quantum computers. Specifically, she is working with noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) computers, which refers to computers with 50 to 100 qubits, the basic unit of quantum information used in a quantum computer. These quantum computers can potentially be much more powerful than traditional computers. But working with such computers requires creating new algorithms (different than those that work on traditional computers) that can take into account the number of qubits they use and the number of gates, the basic quantum circuit operating on a small number of qubits,  they can execute in a sequence. Smith is helping to map algorithms to work with this new technology so we can use devices like these to the best of their abilities.

Smith is working in the lab of Fred Chong, the Seymour Goodman Professor of Computer Science at UChicago, but doesn’t hesitate to reach out to anyone within IBM or the Chicago Quantum Exchange to learn more about their work.

“It’s exactly what I wanted to be doing after graduation,” she said. “The fact that I’m making connections with industry, and seeing the applications of quantum in industry, makes it that much better. I get to see where quantum computing is heading in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Chong’s lab benefits both from Smith’s work and the connection to IBM. "Kate adds substantial expertise in design automation and photonic technologies to our group,” Chong said. “It is great that IBM is sponsoring her work, but even more beneficial that they give us access to their phenomenal researchers, software, and physical platforms. With their help, we are performing experiments not yet available to any other academic institutions."

Working with IBM on leading-edge problems

The program also has significant benefit to the research team at IBM, said Ali Javadi, IBM research staff member and lead Qiskit developer for IBM Quantum.

"The CQE-IBM postdoc program is an excellent example of an academic-industrial partnership to advance quantum computing,” Javadi said. “Selected fellows have the opportunity to collaborate with established researchers on problems that are both intellectually stimulating and of great practical importance for this rapidly advancing field.”

Smith recommends the program to any PhD who wants to get a big-picture idea of what’s happening in quantum technology and informatics. “I work in technology-aware programming, but I also work closely with people who work on simulation, verification, and debugging,” she said. “You have all these resources available to you.”

Visit the CQE IBM Postdoctoral Quantum Trainees program page to learn more and apply.