LGBTQ+ in STEM: Queer Community and Quantum Computing

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Photo courtesy of oSTEM at University Birmingham and oSTEM Birmingham Professional and Postgraduate Chapter

My name is Alex Moylett, my pronouns are they/them, and I am a Quantum Scientist at Riverlane, a Cambridge-based company working on pioneering quantum software. Before that I completed a PhD on the Quantum Engineering Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Bristol, where I researched imperfections in photonic quantum computers. Broadly speaking, my research interests are in trying to answer the question "what can a quantum computer do in the near future that a classical computer cannot?"

But what is quantum computing? Well, in everyday classical computation, data is stored and operated on in the form of bits, zeros and ones which are typically represented by voltage levels in an electronic circuit. In quantum computing, data is stored as qubits -- "quantum bits". One way we can represent qubits is with photons, particles of light: if a photon is travelling along one optical fibre it represents a |0⟩, and if it is travelling along a different optical fibre it represents a |1⟩.

But what makes qubits different is that a quantum bit can take more than these two states. Let's take our photon and now pass it through a beam splitter, a mirror which reflects roughly half of all light which encounter it. A photon cannot be split in half, so it must have ended up in one of the two fibres, but we do not know which one it ended up in until we look for ourselves. We call this a superposition, a combination of the |0⟩ and |1⟩ states. This is analogous to Schrödinger's Cat, a thought experiment where a cat in a box could end up alive and dead at the same time. When we check which optical fibre the photon is in, the state collapses into either the |0⟩ or |1⟩ state, akin to opening the box and checking the status of our theoretical cat.

A single qubit represented by a photon (red circle). The qubit starts off in the top fibre, representing the |0⟩ state. After going through the beam splitter (grey dashed line) the photon ends up in a superposition of the |0⟩ and |1⟩ states.

Now imagine that we have many photons, travelling along a network of optical fibres. While it is easy to calculate the probability of a single photon being in one of two fibres, it becomes harder when there are many photons and many fibres to keep track of. This hardness is what we believe gives quantum computers an advantage over our regular classical computers. At Riverlane we are working on applying these machines to solve problems in quantum chemistry, to deliver benefits to the chemical, pharmaceutical and materials industries.

As I was working on my PhD, as well as making various research discoveries, I also made several discoveries about myself. It was in my second year that I came out as trans and nonbinary. This brought various difficulties: from not being able to change my name on publications, to being misgendered in many, even friendly, spaces. Finding other LGBTQ+ folk, both inside and outside research, helped me understand myself better and helped me find support. If you are struggling with similar issues I would recommend seeking communities out, we do exist and will help.

Alex Moylett

Quantum Scientist, Riverlane

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