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Undergrads begin summer quantum research with support from Moore Foundation, Chicago region universities, national labs

Inaugural cohort of students join quantum research labs around the Midwest, planting the seeds for a diverse and inclusive quantum workforce

Written by Meredith Fore

More than a dozen college students from underrepresented backgrounds will be spending the summer conducting quantum information science and engineering research in labs across the Midwest thanks to the Open Quantum Initiative Undergraduate Fellowship, a new program that seeks to make the burgeoning quantum workforce a more diverse and inclusive community from the start.

The Open Quantum Initiative is a group of researchers, educators, and leaders among the Chicago Quantum Exchange that champions the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in quantum science. Their new fellowship recently garnered almost half a million dollars of support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, affirming the importance of increasing the diversity of scientists and engineers in quantum information science and engineering.

The new fellowship program was founded in large part by graduate students and early-career researchers and seeks to make the expanding quantum workforce a more diverse and inclusive community by helping undergraduate students from a broad variety of backgrounds gain hands-on experience. Almost 70% of this year’s fellowship students are Hispanic, Latino, or Black, and half are the first in their family to go to college. In addition, while the field of quantum science and engineering is generally majority-male, the 2022 cohort is half female.

“The unique thing about quantum information science is that the field is just starting to take off,” said Katherine Harmon, a Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow at U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, and one of the early-career researchers who helped conceptualize and launch the initiative. “We have an opportunity and indeed an obligation to ensure that the field is open to everyone from the start.”

The inaugural cohort of Open Quantum Initiative Fellows includes undergraduates from across the country—as close as Chicago State University and all the way to University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley. This week, these students have already received a behind the scenes look at IBM’s quantum research lab at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

As part of the fellowship, students will spend the next 10 weeks at partnering institutions, including The University of Chicago, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and The Ohio State University, receiving one-on-one mentorship as they participate in quantum research.

Student research projects will span quantum networking, software and computing, and quantum sensing, which could lead to new kinds of unbreakable encryption and secure communication over vast distances, computers that can solve previously unsolvable problems, and sensors that can detect the tiniest change in the environment.

“I have been interested in quantum computing development for some time now, but it's difficult to find formal opportunities for learning and exploring quantum. When I learned about OQI, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for such exploration,” said Ariadna Fernandez, a computer science major at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the inaugural fellowship cohort. “It’s important that everyone has access to the field to ensure that leadership includes the voices of communities that are often left behind and significantly impacted by new technology. I think the mission of OQI is an important way to make this happen in quantum.”

The fellowship program was launched with support from the Chicago Quantum Exchange member and partner institutions where the students will work, along with Q-NEXT, a Department of Energy National Quantum Information Science Research Center and the National Science Foundation Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks.

The recent Moore Foundation award will enable more than 30 additional fellows to join the program over the next four years. “We are looking forward to seeing the program grow and provide more opportunities for students such as Ariadna to explore the potential of quantum science and to push the frontiers of this technology,” said Gary Greenburg, program officer in the science program of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to develop a diverse and inclusive workforce for this emerging discipline in science and engineering, and this fellowship is a large step towards that goal,” said David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange and the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering and Physics at the University of Chicago. “Our partnership with the Moore Foundation will help us create a program that can be a model for similar efforts across the country. We look forward to nurturing this next generation of quantum talent.”

The fellowship also includes networking activities to help the fellows establish connections with mentors and peers in academia and industry. Fellowship cohorts will stay connected even after their summer is over: they will be able to attend online seminars designed to expand their professional network, teach science communication skills, and provide career preparation strategies, and past fellows will have opportunities to mentor future fellows. The Open Quantum Initiative also aims to provide future research experiences in subsequent summers.

About the Chicago Quantum Exchange:

The Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) is an intellectual hub for advancing the science and engineering of quantum information between the CQE community, across the Midwest, and around the globe. A catalyst for research activity across its member and partner institutions, the CQE is based at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and is anchored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University. The CQE includes more than 35 corporate partners and is a member of the IBM Quantum Network.

About the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation:

“The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area. Visit Moore.org and follow @MooreFound.”