We recently caught up with Olivia Lanes, an experimental researcher and community/education developer at IBM, where she leads the Qiskit community and educational efforts in North America. We’re a little starstruck. She holds a Ph.D. in experimental quantum physics from the University of Pittsburgh. Her current research focus is on leakage mitigation in superconducting qubits.
In the interview, we discussed her background, and how she got started in physics, her role and research focus at IBM & promoting female participation in the STEM fields.
How did you get interested in physics, and what made you choose it as a career?
I got into physics from my dad. He's not a physicist, but he's a big physics enthusiast. He showed me the original Cosmos DVDs with Carl Sagan when I was a teenager, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. From then I wanted to be an astronomer. I went down the whole astronomy route and came to realize it was not for me. I had to figure out what else to do with this degree, and by accident, I ended up in quantum computing.
So your degree was in astronomy rather than quantum physics?
I have a degree in physics. My focus was in astronomy, and my minor was in astrophysics.
What made you ultimately decide to switch paths and focus on quantum physics?
I went on this observing trip, and it wasn't what I pictured an astronomer doing. It was very much coding, sitting in front of a computer at 3 am every single night and not looking at the stars or really thinking about the deep mysteries of the universe, which is what I wanted to do.
I asked if I could change my senior thesis to working with quantum optics to create a laser project. My adviser was very confused as I was basically doing a 180, but thankfully he let me do it.
Were there any mentors or role models in the quantum world that drew you in?
Not particularly; it was honestly just an accident. I would say my advisor in graduate school was a mentor for me once I was accepted, and I had already started working with him. But there was nobody that I had previously looked up to in the quantum computing field who I wanted to emulate. It was just dumb luck.
At the moment, your role at IBM is a mix of two different roles. How did that come about?
I was talking to some people that I knew on both the hardware side & education side. I wanted to do both as I was about to graduate with a Ph.D. in experimental physics and really wanted to use it. But on the other hand, I've also been very passionate about education and outreach my entire career. I didn't want to give up one or the other, so I just asked IBM if I could do both jobs. Thankfully, they agreed.
What's a typical day look like for you?
There’s no typical day. I am a hard person to pin down… Now that I'm a manager, I do my very best to be available at all working hours of the day unless, of course, I'm in the lab. I try to dedicate two days a week to lab work or at least being on-site in the facility taking data. That doesn't always work out, but two days is what I aim for. Ultimately, no day looks the same as I have totally different responsibilities every day.
You said roughly two days a week, you try to get in the lab and focus on research. What's your kind of focus at the moment from a research point of view?
I'm currently studying leakage in superconducting devices. My Ph.D. was in parametric superconducting amplifiers. Some of the physics is the same, but it’s also different enough that it's an intellectual challenge. It's nothing like what I was doing before.
You said you’re working with superconducting qubits. As we know, there are many different qubit types, and there's no real clear agreement as to which one will win out. Do you have any insight or opinion on that?
Obviously, I'm biased, but I think superconducting will be the most ubiquitous choice of hardware. This isn’t to say there's only going to be one architecture that's going to win overall. There could be specific architectures that are more well-suited to specific applications. I think that's a possibility.
In the three years I’ve been at IBM; I’m delighted to say we’ve achieved everything we laid forward on our quantum roadmap. There’s been remarkable progress in engineering and physics, and I’m sure this will continue into the future.
What's the big thing you're currently working towards with regards to superconducting qubits?
I'm working specifically on leakage mitigation. Leakage to higher-order states in qubits is a known problem for error correction. We need to try to figure out how to make that happen as infrequently as possible or, when it does happen, reset it back to the qubit manifold.
Another interesting aspect is there are other people on the team working on how to interconnect processors. For example, say processors are going to be 1000 qubits or 2000 qubits. Are we going to connect the processors to one another, or how can we achieve it? I think that that's one of the most interesting open questions.
Men account for the majority of employees in the STEM field. Why do you think that’s the case?
It's impossible to pin down. But I think one reason is that from a very young age, whether subconsciously or not, people instill in young girls that science and math are hard. And you either have to be a genius to pursue it, or you have to be willing to give up all other aspects of your life. I think this is a very intimidating message. I think there are a lot of women who haven't developed the confidence that they should have in their abilities. There's definitely a leaky pipeline because If you look at statistics, women perform just as well on average in science classes. Yet, they still leave the field at much larger rates, either due to overt discrimination or subconscious discrimination, or they just feel like, for some reason, this is a hostile environment where “I can't have a family or I can't have hobbies.”
Was that something you experienced when choosing science as a potential career?
I think I was protected by my family. As my family is in science, they were always very encouraging and definitely took the approach of “Yeah, you gotta work hard,” but you have the capabilities to succeed. I remember it becoming more noticeable that people thought it was weird that I was a girl studying physics in college. People would start commenting on it. This is just an example, but I remember joining a sorority when I was in college, and when I’d say I'm thinking of majoring in physics, they would think it's weird. They would be like, “Really? That's strange”. That was like my first glimpse of… I don't even know if I would call it discrimination, but the feeling I was the odd man out.
Would you have any tips or advice for somebody to overcome that?
I would say mentors are really helpful to have. LinkedIn didn't exist when I was a teenager and when I went to college. I think now it's a lot easier to connect with people from all over the world who can provide mentorship. I’ve also discovered that people are less intimidating and nicer than you might think, and that kind of support is really helpful.
I also think a lot of it is just reminding yourself on a daily basis that even if you're not as confident as the people sitting next to you, it doesn't mean anything. They might be overconfident. They might be completely over-projecting their abilities. You might be completely under-projecting your abilities. Also, I believe that how smart you are at a given moment in time is just not that important - It's just about consistency. If you consistently work at something, if you care enough, if you're passionate enough, you will be successful.
Imposter syndrome is a big talking point nowadays. Is that something that you have ever experienced?
I find the term imposter syndrome hilarious. People are always asking, how do I know if I have impostor syndrome? There's not really any distinct way to tell. If you keep working, you will be successful. Of course, you’ll have setbacks, that's fine. But it doesn’t mean you're an imposter.
But then again, sometimes I feel like I still have impostor syndrome every single day. Trying to have a sense of humor about it would probably be my most useful advice. Everyone feels that way. It doesn't go away. It doesn't even necessarily get better. So just try to laugh at it. The world's brightest and best scientists all feel the way you do. It's kind of hilarious, right? We're all just trying to do our very best and hoping that our colleagues don't think we’re imbeciles…
We’ve covered quite a lot! Before we finish up, what do you most like and dislike about your job?
Dislike: The worst part is feeling like you can't help people as much as you want. I feel like I struggle with this a lot. For example, people will ask me how I got into the field and what they can do to get into the field. But when I tell them my story of how I got into the field, it really was kind of just like a series of accidents. You can't reproduce it.
Favorite: The fact that no two days are the same. The other best thing is the people I get to work with. IBM has hired amazing people, and I genuinely like all of them on a professional and personal level. They're so smart, and thoughtful, and they're so willing to help you. You can pretty much just go to anybody and ask anything.
And lastly, what do you like to do to unwind outside of work?
I play video games and hang out with my dog. Not interesting or unusual activities, I know…
We hope you enjoyed this interview & special thanks to Olivia for participating. Make sure to follow Olivia Lanes & Quantum Machines on Twitter to stay up to date!
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