The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship program is awarded to highly qualified doctoral students who demonstrate academic excellence, research potential and leadership. IQC is proud to congratulate Shayan Majidy, a PhD student in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and Institute for Quantum Computing.
Congratulations Shayan. To start off, could you explain what you study?
There are two questions I’ve been interested in during my grad studies.
One is, where is the ‘quantum’ in quantum systems? Just because something is small, that doesn’t mean it can have quantum behaviour. And just because something is big, that doesn’t mean it can’t. So how do you actually test for real quantum behaviour?
More recently, I’ve been interested in finding out if you can gain any thermodynamic advantage with quantum mechanics.
Say you take a cup of coffee, put it on a table and wait for it to reach room temperature. What happens there is that your system—your coffee—exchanges heat and maybe some particles with the environment. In the field, we say it exchanges charges with its bath. And that’s what systems do. They exchange charges with their bath until they reach equilibrium.
In quantum mechanics, there is this feature called non-commutation where you have some uncertainty in these different things you’re observing. If you have a cup of quantum coffee exchanging heat and particles with the bath, but you can’t know both the heat and the particles exactly all the time, does that change how that system thermalizes?
There’s been some interesting theoretical work done for studying systems that exchange non-commuting charges. But nobody has done any experiments in the field yet. Nicole Yunger Halpern at the University of Maryland and I recently helped bridge this gap by finding an algorithm in which you pick what charges you want to be exchanged and you get the equation describing how that system will look experimentally. Hopefully, many of these theoretical results can now be tested.
What are you excited about for the future of quantum?
I’m really excited about the different sectors that quantum computing might impact in the future. For example, a lot of people don’t think about medicine or the environment when they think about quantum computers. But it’s possible that quantum computers will help companies synthesize new drugs or help us find more efficient ways to convert nitrogen to ammonia for fertilizer, which is a process that takes up a huge amount of our global energy usage.
What does winning the Vanier Graduate Scholarship mean to you?
A lot of students, including myself, struggle with imposter syndrome. I was not a great student during my undergrad. But I’ve been working really hard in grad school to catch up, yet there is always this nagging voice in my head telling me that I don’t really belong here. This award provides some external validation.
It also reminds me of the people who have supported me during grad studies.
I have been very lucky to work with [IQC and Physics and Astronomy faculty member] Raymond Laflamme, Jonathan Halliwell at Imperial College, and Nicole Yunger Halpern. They’re all people who know an incredible amount about their field, who will take the time to explain what they know, and who are all really good at explaining complex subject matter.
Our scientific outreach non-profit Unentangled would not have come into existence without [IQC scientific outreach manager] John Donohue’s support. I wouldn’t be writing a textbook about experimental quantum computing if I wasn’t working with Ray and [IQC and Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty member] Christopher Wilson.
I feel like my whole journey has been about meeting the right people.
What do you like to do outside of research?
A big part of my life is outreach. Before coming to grad school, I was working full-time with the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program. That program really instills a sense of duty in you to help younger generations. And I carried that with me to grad school.
I participated in outreach programs at IQC, the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo, and I started Unentangled, which aims to connect students with new research and help them understand what science is and how its tools can help anyone on an everyday basis.
The textbook that I am writing with Chris Wilson and Ray Laflamme is another key project I am spending time on lately.
A text on experimental quantum computing is something I wished was available when I started my studies, and now we are writing one that introduces the physics of the different types of quantum computers that are being developed at IQC.
Early drafts of the book have already been used for some courses here, and we’re going to negotiate with the publishers to make a free copy of the book available so that no one has limitations in getting access to good quality education in quantum computing.
We hope the book will make it easier for more universities to offer courses in experimental quantum computing.
Is there anything you think grad students or aspiring grad students out there should know?
I like to tell grad students about something my friend Zlatko Minev [IBM physicist and founder of OpenLabs] said to me. He said that your sense of achievement will come from your career accomplishments, but your sense of fulfillment will come from the service you do for others.
I think that is important for grad students to hear because it is so easy to get caught up in publishing, getting good grades, applying to scholarships and so on. It adds so much to your life to help others.