This is the latest addition to our Women in STEM series, where we explore how women are breaking new ground in quantum computing and beyond. This time we caught up with Carmen G. Almudéver, a distinguished researcher at the Technical University of Valencia. We discussed a wide range of topics, including how she got started in quantum computing, her current role and research focus, encouraging more female participation in STEM, and much more!
How did you become interested in quantum physics as a career?
I’m originally an engineer by trade, specializing in telecommunication engineering, which covers a mix of communications, electronics, and informatics. I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to be an engineer when I started out. I’ve always been more into math, physics, and chemistry rather than humanities. Ultimately I figured engineering would give me the best shot at working on the kind of projects that interested me most.
During my university studies, I had some exposure to physics, but I never really got into the nitty-gritty of it beyond what I needed to know for my work. It wasn’t until I got into quantum computing that I really started appreciating the importance of physics in this field. I’m still primarily an engineer, but I’ve been digging deeper into the physics side of things to understand better how it can be applied to the problems we’re trying to solve.
Was there a specific moment that sparked your interest in engineering and quantum computing?
As I just mentioned, after finishing high school, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do next. I was pretty good at math and physics, but beyond that, I had no idea what to study. Then someone suggested, “Hey, why not go for engineering?” And I thought, “Yeah, that could work!” I didn’t have a specific focus in mind, so I just picked the broadest engineering program I could find. It wasn’t until I started my university studies that I really began to understand what it meant to be an engineer. I realized that I had more flexibility to explore different disciplines within engineering, which was really exciting.
In the last year of my studies, when doing my master’s thesis, I fell in love with research and then decided to start a Ph.D. Although my Ph.D. research topic focused on emerging technologies and novel computing paradigms, I did not explore the quantum world during that time. However, when I finished my Ph.D., I heard from a colleague that there was an open position on quantum computing at the Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science faculty of Delft University of Technology. Although I did not have a background in quantum computing, I decided to apply, and I got it. I subsequently moved to the Netherlands to start my quantum journey.
In terms of your current role, what is your main focus?
My work involves quantum computing, but specifically from an architectural and engineering perspective. Currently, our main focus is on developing a full-stack quantum computing system that integrates software and hardware layers bridging quantum algorithms, at the top of the stack, to quantum devices that are at the bottom. For instance, we examine compilation techniques and programming languages for expressing and compiling algorithms, as well as benchmarks to test the computer’s performance. We also investigate scalability challenges, which arise when we increase the number of qubits and move to larger machines. In order to overcome these challenges, we determine what needs to be added or reorganized within the system stack. In general, our work is aimed at advancing the field of quantum computing by integrating the required functional elements to the so-called full stack.
A lot of the tools we build are actually used by physicists who are working on the quantum hardware themselves. It’s really interesting stuff!
What does a typical day look like for you?
Since I’m working in academia, my schedule can vary depending on the semester and my teaching duties. But a typical day would start with some lectures in the morning, followed by labs in the afternoon and evening. In between, I usually have meetings with colleagues from different universities to discuss specific topics that we work on together. In addition, I also have meetings with my Ph.D. students, and we’ll discuss papers that are relevant to our research or their latest results and brainstorm new ideas.
What is your favorite aspect of the job?
Talking about research! It’s one of the things that I love the most because you just keep on learning and discovering new things. It allows you to be creative with your ideas. For example, when you read a paper or a book, it’s not just about understanding what’s written but also taking it one step further and thinking outside of the box to come up with a new application or idea. What I also find really exciting is collaborating with other people. Research is not just an individual effort; it’s a team effort. Working with others and doing multidisciplinary research is how we progress and move forward.
I am also very passionate about teaching and it is a far from trivial task. I really enjoy trying to explain complex concepts in a very simple and illustrative way but still being precise and complete. Also, in the last years, I really enjoyed creating new courses on quantum computing with a more engineering perspective.
Could you share a funny story that happened since you got involved in engineering/quantum computing?
I remember when I was first offered a position in quantum computing after finishing my Ph.D. At that time, I didn’t even know what a qubit was! So what did I do? Went straight to Wikipedia, of course! When I arrived at TU Delft to start my new position, it was just me and a pile of quantum books in a sea of physicists. I love challenges, but I was freaking out. I even thought I shouldn’t have taken the position at one point. But in the end, it all went well, and now I have a funny story to tell!
Imposter syndrome is a popular topic today – Is this something you have ever experienced, and if so, how did you deal with it?
I think imposter syndrome is something many of us experience from time to time. Even if we have self-confidence, we can still feel like we don’t know enough or that our ideas aren’t good enough. It’s important to remember that we all have limits to our knowledge, and it’s okay not to have all the answers. So, next time you’re feeling like an imposter, remember that you’re not alone and that it’s okay to ask for help or to admit that you don’t know everything.
I remember when I first started working with physicists, it felt like we were speaking completely different languages. But over time, I learned to ask questions and gradually gained a greater understanding. The feeling of being an imposter or not knowing enough can be especially powerful when you’re starting out. But with more experience, it often becomes easier to deal with. So, if you’re feeling this way, know that you’re not alone and that it’s okay to ask questions and seek out information to help you learn and grow.
Men account for the majority of employees in the STEM fields. Why do you think that’s the case?
It’s a question that many people have been asking for a long time. While I don’t think there is a clear answer, there are a few factors that may contribute to this gender imbalance. One of them is the lack of role models for women in these fields from a young age. The scientists and physicists we see in textbooks and media are usually men, which can make it harder for girls to envision themselves pursuing a career in STEM. Confidence is another factor that may play a role – women may doubt their abilities more than men, leading them to shy away from careers in STEM.
But I do think that despite these challenges, there are women breaking barriers and making strides in STEM fields. As one of the few women in quantum computing, I see it as my responsibility to inspire and support others who may be interested in pursuing careers in engineering, physics, or quantum.
Do you have any tips for women who may be interested in pursuing a career in STEM?
My advice for women interested in a career in STEM is not to be afraid to pursue that direction. Sometimes people may have the perception that STEM fields are more difficult than other fields like humanities, but that’s just not true. It’s just a different way of thinking and problem-solving. Both STEM and humanities require creativity, thinking outside the box, and continuously learning new things. So, my message is not to be intimidated by the technical or practical aspects of STEM, as it’s not necessarily more difficult than other fields. Just believe in yourself, and don’t let anyone discourage you from following your passions and interests. There may be challenges along the way, but with perseverance and a growth mindset, you can achieve great things in STEM! And always remember, there are many women already in STEM who are willing to mentor and support you in your journey.
If you could give some advice to your younger self, what would you have done differently?
I would tell myself to get involved in research earlier. I didn’t have any exposure to research until I completed my studies. It was only in the last year of my master’s that I was introduced to research for the first time. I wish I had known about research earlier if I had the chance.
What do you like to do to unwind outside of work?
While I do love my job, it’s also important for me to have other things to do that help me relax and recharge. The first thing is to get to spend time with my daughter – That’s what I enjoy the most. Aside from that, I enjoy going out to experience the arts, whether that’s seeing a play or attending a music concert. And when I have some free time, I also like to do some physical activity like yoga or jogging – it helps me clear my mind and stay healthy. Of course, the weather doesn’t always cooperate, but when it does, getting outside for some exercise is always a great way to unwind.
And before we finish… Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to finish by adding that gender imbalance is still prevalent in STEM fields, including quantum computing. As a result, women in this field may encounter uncomfortable situations or even sexist comments. My message to those who face such situations is not to be afraid to speak out against them. When you encounter a sexist comment or attitude, it’s important to make the person aware that their behavior is inappropriate. They may not even realize that what they said or did was hurtful. So, it’s crucial not to remain silent and to stand up for yourself and others.
We hope you enjoyed this interview & special thanks to Carmen for participating.
Read our previous article with Olivia Lanes, experimental researcher and community/education developer at IBM.