Leaders in the relatively new field of quantum information science and engineering see an opportunity—and a critical need—to embrace inclusion. The rapidly expanding quantum ecosystem relies on myriad perspectives, including those of minoritized communities, to fuel innovation, and it needs a broad pool to meet rising workforce demand. But the field draws from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines that historically have struggled with diversity and inclusion.
“One of the most exciting things about quantum is, as a brand-new field, maybe we can do things the right way, [by asking], 'How do we support people that are traditionally not accepted in these spaces?’” University of Illinois Chicago engineering professor Thomas Searles said at a recent event that gathered academic, industry, and government leaders to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion in the quantum workforce. The event, “Quantum: Ensuring an Inclusive Future,” was led by the global quantum technology company Infleqtion and the United Kingdom’s Department for Business and Trade and hosted in partnership with the Chicago Quantum Exchange, P33, the Consulate General of Canada in Chicago, and Cresa.
“The problem becomes interesting, because quantum merges these fields that have done so bad at it previously,” Searles said. “I think we can learn from some other newer fields—bioengineering, for example—and try to apply what they’ve done to [quantum information science], and we really have an opportunity to make a difference.”
The discussion ranged from ongoing challenges to successes and notable efforts, including in the Midwest region’s quantum ecosystem, where inclusive opportunities are helping drive a shift from emerging quantum powerhouse to national economic hub.
“Broadening diversity and inclusivity in quantum careers, and in our STEM workforce more broadly, will maximize the economic and societal benefits of embracing these new technologies,” UK Consul General for Chicago Alan Gogbashian said in his welcome remarks. “Both Chicago and the UK are proud leaders in quantum research and technology … We are so thrilled to be [discussing inclusivity] with so many like-minded partners and leaders within the field in one of America’s most exciting cities for quantum.”
Panelists focused on how the field can avoid the mistakes of the past by taking an inclusive approach now.
“Yes, quantum research has been around for a hundred years,” said Laura Thomas, Infleqtion’s chief of staff. “But when we really think about defining a new market and new product category, we are just at the early stages. This is a chance for us to set the standards and really dictate how this industry is going to move forward, and make sure that we're bringing everyone together in a very inclusive way.”
STEM fields remain overwhelmingly white and male—women only earn about 20% of bachelor’s degrees in physics, engineering, and computer science; African American students only earn about 6%; and Hispanic students only earn about 12%, according to Pew Research.
A key focus of the discussion was access: to education, to resources, and even entry to the United States. Victory Omole, senior software engineer at Infleqtion, has a degree in classical computer engineering and cited the open-source quantum software community as essential to his joining the field. Both Searles and Mirella Koleva, the CEO and co-founder of quantum startup Quantopticon, mentioned the growing abundance of accessible quantum content on YouTube and other free sites.
But Koleva, a UK citizen, and Bianca Giaccone, an Italian citizen and associate scientist at Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory and member of its Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems center, shared their personal experiences with hard-to-get visas and other immigration roadblocks in the US, and emphasized the need to reduce these obstacles. Chloe Archambault, principal at quantum venture capital fund Quantacet and a Canadian citizen, noted that quantum technology is a global endeavor rather than a local or national effort, and so facilitating movement of talent across borders is essential.
“Something that’s different about quantum is that we simply cannot afford to exclude talent,” said Archambault. “There are just not enough trained quantum workers to support this growing industry. But it all starts from education, and we are fortunate in Canada that university tuition fees are very low. We need to make sure that people have access to that education.”
The panelists also shared success stories: Searles spoke of one student from Chicago’s South Side who is going to study quantum at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and Giaccone said 47% of the interns of last year’s SQMS summer internship program were female or underrepresented minorities. The CQE and its members also run a number of programs aimed at creating access to the quantum ecosystem, including the Open Quantum Initiative Fellowship, which gives undergraduate students from a range of backgrounds the opportunity to do hands-on quantum engineering research in the Chicago community.
But STEM fields traditionally struggle with a “leaky pipeline”—the gradual loss of woman and people from minoritized backgrounds as they advance into the field. Besides expanding access to quantum education and international talent, the panelists also emphasized the need for diverse hiring committees, both in industry and academia, and intentional collaboration with institutions that support minoritized populations such as HBCUs.
But when asked for what advice they had for young people looking to join quantum, their answers were almost unanimous: come to Chicago.
“If you’re in the US, you should move to Chicago,” Searles said. “It’s like a constant quantum circus here—it’s a very fun ride. I think replicating what’s happening in Chicago, where it’s not just education initiatives but it’s startup entrepreneurship, industry, and government…that’s what’s needed throughout the US.”