How the Open Quantum Initiative Fellowship shapes emerging talent through summer research opportunities

Adrian Portales, an undergraduate student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, had just finished presenting his research on the use of crystalline materials in quantum devices when a hand went up in the audience at the University of Chicago’s William Eckhardt Research Center.

It was August 2022, and Portales, who had spent his summer at Argonne National Laboratory as part of the inaugural class of the Open Quantum Initiative Fellowship Program, assumed the questioner was merely an interested spectator—perhaps a professor or a relative of one of the other college students presenting at the program’s closing symposium.

At the end of the event—which featured presentations by each of the 12 fellows, who had traveled from across the country for the summer program run by the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) and its member and partner institutions—the questioner approached Portales. The two talked for a while about quantum, Portales’ research, and then a little bit about guitars, which turned out to be a shared hobby. It felt very casual—until the man introduced himself as a principal scientist at HRL Laboratories, a California-based research center and a CQE corporate partner.

Adrian Portales
Adrian Portales

“He said, ‘Here’s my business card, let’s talk,’” said Portales, who ultimately secured a summer 2023 master’s internship with HRL Laboratories. He was one of eight members of his OQI cohort to accept a 2023 internship in the field of quantum information science and engineering.

Paving the way for these sorts of connections is a key goal of the Open Quantum Initiative (OQI) Fellowship, which the CQE created to engage promising undergraduate students from a wide range of backgrounds in quantum research at CQE member and partner institutions over the summer.

The program is growing: last summer OQI institutions hosted 18 undergraduates in research labs throughout the CQE community. In addition, two-thirds of the 2022 cohort accepted quantum internships in 2023—six with CQE corporate partners, including QuantCAD, memQ, IBM, and HRL. Five of the cohort have graduated and another six are on track to complete their degrees in 2024.

It has been a win-win: students have gained valuable experience in the emerging field and companies have connected with rising talent.

“Adrian provided great ideas for improving our testing efficiency in a program of high importance for quantum and quantum-adjacent materials,” said Thaddeus Ladd, the principal research scientist at HRL who approached Portales. “I am not sure we would have connected with him were it not for the OQI event where I was able to see his potential in person.”

Portales is now at Harvard University, supported by Amazon Web Services, where he continues to conduct research within the Harvard Quantum Initiative under Evelyn Hu, the Tarr-Coyne Professor of Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering.

Chris Anderson, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a founding member of the OQI Steering Committee, and a graduate of UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), said he was excited to see how “OQI  has opened doors for these talented individuals, allowing them to gain hands-on experience and exposure in the quantum industry.”

“Through the OQI, the fellows have not only developed technical skills, but have also formed meaningful connections and opportunities with established professionals and organizations in the quantum field beyond their summer research experience,” Anderson said. “The inaugural cohort’s success showcases how OQI is actively cultivating a diverse quantum ecosystem.”

Over the last two years, the program has drawn students from a diversity of institutions, with 35 percent coming from Hispanic Serving Institutions, Historically Black Colleges & University, Primarily Black Institutions, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions. Nearly half of students come from research-intensive universities. About one-third of both cohorts are first-generation students. And while the field of quantum information science and engineering (QISE) is generally majority-male, nearly half of the 2022 and 2023 cohort identified as female or gender minority. In surveys, members of the cohort reported that they felt more confident about entering a career in quantum science and more accepted in the field of QISE than they did before; many of the students also responded that OQI had “opened doors that were previously closed” to them.

Ariadna Fernandez
Ariadna Fernandez

Ariadna Fernandez, who graduated last year from the University of Illinois Chicago with a degree in computer science, worked for two Chicago-based quantum startups in 2023: QuantCAD and memQ. Her OQI fellowship—with UChicago’s Richard and Kathy Leventhal Professor Laura Gagliardi, who has a joint appointment in PME and the Department of Chemistry—involved optimizing a hybrid quantum algorithm used to calculate the energy levels of molecules. Thanks to the fundamental concepts she learned through that experience, Fernandez has been able to make the transition to her internships quite easily, expanding on that basic knowledge and learning about its different applications.

“It made me really happy to hear a lot of concepts that I heard and learned about during the summer in my internship interviews,” she said. “The fellowship gave me a really good foundation to understand the work that I’m doing right now.”

The fellowship also provided a more personal foundation for her work this summer—Fernandez met QuantCAD’s founders at last year’s OQI Research Symposium, and memQ first received her resume through OQI. The connections she forged during her fellowship have woven her firmly into the Chicago region’s quantum ecosystem, and she’s thrilled.

“I want to stay here as long as I can,” she said. “OQI really did change what I envisioned for a future career. After seeing “that this is possible, there’s so many people doing this, so many industries opening up to more people, it really made me say, ‘Okay, this is something that I really want to do.’ And I want to somehow, some way, stay in this area. That’s my long-term goal.”

‘A world where everyone can contribute’

When Alejandro Aponte, a student at Florida International University, applied to research programs last summer, he was drawn by OQI’s central mission: to make the quantum workforce more inclusive. It made OQI his first choice, “miles ahead” of any other program.

Alejandro Aponte
Alejandro Aponte

“The purpose of the program was the thing that jumped at me the most,” said Aponte, who worked at UIUC with Assistant Physics Professor Elizabeth Goldschmidt as a 2022 fellow. “It seemed like they’re professionals who want to contribute not only toward the current world, but a better world. A world where everyone can contribute what they would like to contribute. Being able to be heard within a space in which I didn't have an active voice was the most important thing to me.”

An important priority for building a competitive and inclusive quantum workforce is ensuring access to resources and mentors, not just at the beginning but throughout a person’s career. It’s not enough to just bring new talent into the quantum field—providing them with the skills, opportunities and support that enable them to remain and advance in that field over time is what creates an equitable and sustainable ecosystem.

With that in mind, the OQI Fellowship Program doesn’t end for the fellows at the end of the summer. The cohort continues to engage with the program and the quantum ecosystem over the academic year following their fellowship, expanding their understanding of quantum science, exposing them to career opportunities in the field, and helping them grow their professional networks with leaders in academia and industry. There are also opportunities to mentor the next year’s OQI Fellows.

Aponte interned last summer at QuantCAD, where he worked on minimizing quantum noise in qubits. He says that his fellowship research at UIUC last year laid a general foundation of knowledge that he gets to build on in his internship, and that it was the OQI program that brought him and QuantCAD together. Kate Timmerman, CQE’s CEO, and Russell Ceballos, CQE’s Associate Director of Curriculum and Education Partnerships, recommended him as a candidate for their internship.

“As soon as I spoke with QuantCAD, it kind of clicked, there was an instant connection,” said Aponte, who plans to pursue a PhD in quantum information science after he graduates. “And with a startup, you get to be more involved and engaged and that was what really highlighted their internship for me.”

Although the fellowship provided some with an entrance to the field of quantum information science and technology, for others in their cohort, the program provided the opportunity to try new research areas within quantum. Kate Arutyunova, a student majoring in physics and electrical engineering at MIT, completed a quantum internship related to electrical engineering in 2021, before becoming an OQI fellow the following summer.  As a part of the OQI program, she worked on materials for quantum sensing with Jennifer Choy, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin­­ – Madison. During the summer of 2023, Arutyunova focused on the simulation and design of quantum devices at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY. Each of the three exposed her to a different subfield of quantum technology.

“Each research experience has helped me narrow down what I’m interested in,” she said. “I think the main idea is to be exposed to multiple areas inside quantum and see what fits you best because it’s a lot of things to really try to understand.”

Coming to IBM’s research facility in Yorktown Heights for her internship was not the first time she’d been there; it was also where the OQI cohort went for their orientation. And in another connection, her OQI mentor, Choy, was also once an undergraduate at MIT.

“Right now we are with quantum computing where we were with classical computing 60 years ago, right?” she said. “So it’s a new field where you can invest your time and effort and try to be on a frontier of something new, something revolutionary. And that’s really exciting to me.”

The Open Quantum Initiative undergraduate fellowship program is made possible by funding provided by the University of Chicago; the US Department of Energy Office of Technology Transitions and Q-NEXT, which is led by Argonne National Laboratory; the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN) and the Wisconsin Quantum Institute at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison; The Ohio State University; Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; and UChicago’s Inclusive Innovation in the Sciences Fund, which invests in programs that provide residents of Chicago’s South Side with education and job opportunities connected to several growing scientific domains, including quantum science and engineering.