Inspiring the next generation of physicists

Daniel Eyckens and Rory Purdie

Daniel has submitted his PhD in Organic Chemistry and has started work as a Post Doctoral Researcher at Deakin University. Rory is beginning her 2nd year in her PhD in Sports Technology at Deakin University and hopes to continue into a research career.

Two PhD students attended the Academy’s Innovation Dinner and met with quantum physicist Professor Michelle Simmons FTSE. Here they write about their experience.

We sat down with the 2018 Australian of the Year and renowned quantum physicist Professor Michelle Simmons after her keynote at a gala celebrating technology innovators – the 2018 Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering Innovation Dinner.

Professor Simmons, whose list of accolades is longer than your arm (even if you have exceptionally long limbs), is the Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at the University of NSW and an Academy Fellow.


Rory Purdie and Daniel Eyckens met with Professor Michelle Simmons FTSE at the Innovation Dinner.

What is quantum computation?

Her field of quantum computation essentially deals with building an electronic device on an atomic scale with information encoded in the spin of a single electron. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin, on an almost incomprehensible scale. Nonetheless, the group have achieved the introduction of a single phosphorous atom into a single layer of silicon atoms, which is then encased in crystalline silicon.

The beauty of this technique is that silicon and phosphorous are atomically very similar, with the latter having one extra electron. The electrons of silicon bond to other silicon atoms, or the single phosphorous electron, and the extra electron of phosphorous carries the information.

This technique means the silicon electrons are unable to interfere, which allows the half-life of signals from the phosphorous atom to be extended up to 35 seconds. Professor Simmons assures us that this is good news for quantum computing – and for Australia to be at the forefront of this technology.

She believes quantum computers will be the way of the future as they operate in a different method to the computers of today. Her analogy, for those of us with heads swimming, was that of the linear increase in computing power when combining traditional computers and their power.

If you want to find the name of the owner of a phone number, she explains, two computers may find it twice as fast as one, and three will do it three times as fast when splitting the directories evenly. Quantum computers, on the other hand, are able to operate in parallel, which will boost the speed and power of their computing.

Also pertinent is the distance electrons must travel to transmit signal. Closing this distance results in greater speed, and you can’t get much closer than the atomic scale.

Technology for the next generation

When asked about closing the gap for future generations to be able to cope with the technologies of the future, Michelle shows great passion.

“It’s something I have been looking at for five or 10 years now,” she says, smiling.

The problem first became apparent when postgraduate students in her research group showed gaps in their knowledge or expertise.

“At first, I thought it was common as all students complain,” she says with a laugh (as the authors are both PhD students, this can be confirmed). “But then I found some students hadn’t done any coding in their previous education, for example.”

She also chooses things she enjoys, including working on the quantum computer, which she says is challenging, rewarding and “hopefully useful when built”. There is no doubt it will be.

Professor Simmons found that many years ago the Australian school curriculum had been made easier and more accessible, an example of which is the reduction of mathematics in physics. Michelle states that it is “critical to get these skills up again, going forward” and that she is “targeting schools to make coding compulsory”.

Of course, future generations must be able to work with future technology, especially when Australian researchers are at the forefront and the Australian of the Year considers the scale of the problem at hand.

“We need to bring the curriculum up to standard and recognise that teachers need support. You can’t bring in a whole new curriculum and expect teachers to run with it. These are huge challenges.”

If these issues aren’t addressed, there may be “generations of people that can’t engage with the industries that are coming. It’s quite a serious issue”.

Another area she feels needs to change is industry collaboration with researchers. Michelle was completing fundamental research back in 2010 that led to a visit in 2013 from the Chief Technology Officer of the Commonwealth Bank Australia. She was a bit surprised but was informed that the visit was due to the anticipation of new technology and CBA’s endeavor to be ready for the future.

The Chief Technology Officer was aware quantum computing was the future and, when asked who was leading globally, was told Michelle’s research group in Australia.

“He came to see if it was true,” Michelle remembers. “I showed him around the labs and what we do, and he said, ‘we want to work with you’.”

Her first response was: “Wow. These guys are really on the ball, and they have come to us, which is great.” But then she thought: “Why doesn’t this happen more often?”

If this sort of thing was possible, there should be conversations with other industries to make sure they are aware of the opportunities arising in Australian research.

Professor Simmons also felt responsible to alert the Australian Government as her work has major implications for defence, especially in the encryption/decryption of information. “If it [building the quantum computer] happens in other countries, and Australia had the potential but didn’t support it, that would be bad.”

It is therefore necessary that all these sectors communicate with each other to support leading Australian research.

Michelle Simmons keynote 2018 (4)

Michelle Simmons was the keynote at the Innovation Dinner and spoke about the future of quantum physics in Australia.

Where did Michelle find inspiration?

Michelle recalls enjoying challenges from a young age, trying to find the “hardest thing to do” – a mentality that has led her to pick up a variety of skills along the way. She also chooses things she enjoys, including working on the quantum computer, which she says is challenging, rewarding and “hopefully useful when built”. There is no doubt it will be.

She tells us how she played chess with her father as an eight-year-old, beating him in her first ever game. This left both father and daughter a bit shocked, and was followed by 10 straight defeats at the hands of her father, lighting the fire of ambition in Michelle, who was anxious to repeat her first victory. Her father’s reaction was to enrol Michelle in chess tournaments.

She enjoyed the games, and enjoyed winning, but after a while she didn’t want to spend most weekends travelling to tournaments. So, at 12, Michelle retired from competitive chess, but not before her father had her prowess for chess tested. The results revealed that she had the potential to be a Grandmaster, but Michelle was not interested. It looks like quantum computing will just have to do.

Michelle’s advice to her younger self? Celebrate your weaknesses. Trust your instincts.

“If somebody had told me to trust my instincts and follow them, I probably would have got to where I am a bit faster,” she said with a laugh. She also says to embrace doubt. “Doubt is what it is to be a scientist.”

Michelle believes in changing your perspective to celebrate your weaknesses and, for her, getting enough sleep was a big one.

“I used to stress that I didn’t sleep enough, then I realised that’s my mind thinking, and I should use it.” She started waking early and working early.

“I just got on with it.”

A testament to Michelle’s character is the fact that at the Innovation Dinner, and a room full of very important people, she took the time to talk to two PhD candidates. We were promised five minutes, and she gave us 20, demonstrating her passion for communicating and inspiring up and coming researchers.

As a young girl she was very competitive – and still is, according to her friends. She was always told this was a bad thing, until she questioned it. “Now I celebrate it,” she says.

This competitive spirit, propensity to question everything and thirst for answers has certainly led her to achieve all she has.

But when we asked her what the best advice she has ever received was, she was stumped. This is surely some sort of record.

“I don’t know,” Michelle says with some surprise.

This, in itself, may be a great form of advice. Michelle Simmons, Quantum Physicist, Professor of Physics at UNSW, Australian of the Year (among many other titles), is not afraid to admit that she doesn’t know. But one thing is for sure, she will have an answer the next time the question arises.

Our final question was what success looks like to her. This question is often difficult and may be deconstructed many ways, though Michelle didn’t falter a second.

“Building the quantum computer,” she said simply. “No one has done it, but I think we are really on the right route. I really want to do it, and I will be super happy. That’s my whole life.”

The thing about technology is that you can always improve it, and in that respect the “success” may always be in the next adaptation. “I think I’ll have a gut instinct to know when I’m going to call it. We may be using it before I call it, but I think I’ll know.”

A testament to Michelle’s character is the fact that at the Innovation Dinner, and a room full of very important people, she took the time to talk to two PhD candidates. We were promised five minutes, and she gave us 20, demonstrating her passion for communicating and inspiring up and coming researchers.

Thank you to Professor Michelle Simmons, and to Deakin University for sponsoring us to attend the evening. 

The Academy thanks the Victorian Government for enabling the students to participate at the Innovation Dinner.