The Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) is pleased to announce this year’s recipients of the Institute for
Quantum Computing's Achievement Award. This award is given to University of Waterloo graduate students who studied quantum information and have achieved excellence in research. This year's recipients feature three PhD students; Bowen Yang; Shayan Majidy; and Xi Dai.
Award winner Shayan Majidy sat down with us to discuss his current and future research on noncommuting conserved quantities, the award, and his advice for current and aspiring students interested in quantum information.
Congratulations on your Achievement Award Shayan. What was it that interested you in quantum information, and how did you end up studying quantum information science at IQC?
I love how deceptively simple it is. With some back-of-the-envelope linear algebra, you can prove profound results, like how it's impossible to copy quantum information. The potential applications are also exciting. We've seen the impact of the information revolution (computers), and the first signatures of the quantum revolution (MRI, laser-based technologies). What happens when you cross them? At IQC, we hear most about quantum computing, sensing, and communication, but there are also quantum memories, heat engines, and fridges. It's fun to dabble in different technologies. During my masters at the University of Guelph, I took a course called "Topics in Math III." Unbeknownst to me, it was an introductory course on quantum information. The rest is history.
What are you researching for your PhD?
Classically, observable quantities commute. This means, for example, you can know how tall I am and what colour my shirt is at the same time. In quantum mechanics, this isn't necessarily true. If my height and shirt colour were noncommuting, having knowledge of one would obscure knowledge of the other.
Studying noncommuting conserved quantities – known as noncommuting charges– has led to a host of theoretical results. These results merited testing. However, people didn’t know how to find the right Hamiltonians (things which tell you how a system evolves in time) to test them. Nicole Yunger Halpern and I came up with a procedure for building these Hamiltonians. Since our work, a couple of these experiments have been done, which is very rewarding to see.
What challenges did you face during your PhD?
I had three big challenges throughout my PhD. The first was that I had no idea how to come up with research questions. In my undergrad, I only solved problems that others knew the answers to. However, in research, others don't know the answer to the question yet, so you can't just get a hint when you're stuck. I eventually got better at that, until I realized you actually need to come up with research questions on your own and can't only answer research questions other people give you. This was probably my second biggest challenge. I had no idea how to independently come up with research questions. Now, I don't have much difficulty coming up with potential research questions. Instead, my current challenge is identifying which questions are ones that are impactful to solve.
What does receiving the IQC Achievement Award mean to you?
Frankly, like most graduate students, I struggle with imposter syndrome. Awards like this serve as encouragement for me to keep doing my best and to keep taking small steps forward. Small steps, if taken frequently, can lead to real progress.
What’s next for you in quantum information science?
Because of my research, I've been really curious about the thermodynamic consequences of noncommutation. I think it would be really neat to isolate the effects of noncommutation on different quantum phenomena. For example, quantum chaos, decoherence, the difficulty of simulating quantum systems, the performance of quantum machine learning algorithms, and the efficiency of work extraction from measurements. I imagine this will keep me busy for the next few years.
Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about applying to a quantum information program or is interested in learning more about quantum sciences?
My supervisor, Professor Raymond Laflamme and I went for coffee for my last birthday. I asked him for life advice at that time. He reminded me that life is too short not to enjoy the ride. I find this to be so true in research. I think seeing a quantum information program as only a means to an end will make the process painful and not very fruitful. Instead, I’d suggest for people interested in quantum to find quantum information questions that they’re excited to solve and to try and solve them. Along the way, you'll learn and slowly carve out a spot for yourself in quantum information. At least that's what I've been told.