A Q&A with Maria Schuld, Researcher at Xanadu on establishing a career in quantum computing
As a quantum machine learning researcher at the quantum computing firm Xanadu, Maria Schuld spends her days working on how these powerful devices can be used to solve complex machine learning tasks. Maria delves deeper into her unconventional career path and explains how after many twists and turns it led her back to her life-long passion for quantum physics.
1. Can you describe your academic background and how you found yourself in the physics field?
I was always interested in physics during my high school years, and attended public university lectures, learner’s programs and even completed internships in physics-related roles whenever I could. Of course, at the time, I did not understand much about physics. That didn’t deter me. My “holy grail” was quantum physics – one day, I wanted to understand the field.
When it came to entering university, instead of enrolling into a physics program, I decided last minute to enrol into a political science program at the Free University of Berlin. I think it was because I was very apprehensive about the idea of becoming the stereotype of a scientist who sits in a dark room and looks at one small part of the world all day. I also recall visiting the physics department and not feeling that I’d fit in.
But dreams get back to you. After my first year in political science (which I loved, and finished with a postgraduate degree some years later), I heard about a new bachelor’s degree in science at the Technical University of Berlin. This multi-disciplinary program allowed you to study maths, physics and computer science at once. The program was actually launched in the hopes of attracting more women into STEM fields. Funny enough, they followed studies showing that women prefer degrees with longer names, and as a result, called the program the Natural Sciences in the Information Society. This seemed to work, as my cohort was 95% female.
When it came to completing my master’s degree, I switched to pure physics and discovered that despite my earlier apprehensions about not fitting in, people were wonderfully accepting. Soon, the physics department that I found unappealing years before became my second home. I finished with a master’s degree in physics in 2013, after completing my German “diplom” (a 5 year under graduate and postgraduate degree), in political science in 2012.
2. How did you end up working at the quantum computing firm, Xanadu?
During my bachelor’s studies, I travelled to South Africa for an internship in Durban’s physics group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and immediately loved it. The next few years were a back and forth between Germany and South Africa to finish my degrees. I eventually settled in Durban, where I decided to continue my studies with a PhD.
The focus of my master’s thesis had been to develop quantum models for biological neural networks, and after being dissatisfied with the results I wanted to reassess the question from a computational point of view during my PhD studies. This is how I ended up working on a seemingly crazy topic at that time, namely to develop machine learning algorithms for quantum computers. In fact, various senior academics advised me to do something more mainstream. I persisted, and my field turned out to be very fruitful, and started to grow.
After a research internship with Microsoft’s quantum computing group, I received a call from the CEO of Xanadu, Christian Weedbrook, who asked if I would be interested in working at his company. I visited Xanadu in Toronto and was blown away.
3. What does your research at Xanadu focus on?
I work at the quantum hardware and software firm, Xanadu. Xanadu designs and integrates quantum silicon photonic chips into existing hardware to create full-stack quantum computing. The company is working on a photonic quantum architecture that can potentially solve problems in machine learning, chemistry, finance, sensing and drug discovery.
I’m part of the quantum machine learning team. My role is to help develop software for our quantum hardware, as well as for general quantum computers, so that we can solve machine learning tasks with these devices. Quantum computers do not only promise to speed up some known algorithms, we are also currently exploring how they can lead to altogether new and innovative models in machine learning. We find that photonic devices have unique features that make them particularly suitable for AI applications.
4. Did you always feel you were destined for a career in STEM? Were there any outside influences that pushed you towards studying theoretical physics?
With hindsight I think – and that is possibly true for most people who get drawn to science – that my parents played a huge role. Although my parents don’t work in STEM, they instilled certain values in me that I believe guided me to where I am today. I believe I inherited my mother’s persistent urge to create, and my father’s instinct for wanting to make things more efficient. These two qualities equip you quite well for the sciences.
5. What’s your advice for other women who want to enter the scientific field and work at an innovative technology firm like Xanadu?
I think this is applicable to anyone who feels they don’t fit into a culture: find your niche, find the people that you really like, find the way of working that suits your ethics and then move forward. Compromising on any of that is a waste of time.
6. What’s your advice for leaders in tech firms who want to create a nurturing, inclusive work environment for women?
An inclusive environment can be built by being mindful about people who may feel they do not belong. I always use this thought exercise: Imagine you are invited to a party thrown by a group of people who are completely different from you. This could be a group of Asian senior business professionals, a group of Tanzanian lawyers, or a bar full of mine workers. Think of any group of people which share a way of speaking, looking and interacting – in short, a culture - that is different from yours. Now, think about what they could do to help you feel included. That is how you should treat every individual who is entering a culture where you are part of the majority.
There are also very practical steps companies can take when it comes to creating a nurturing environment for women. Create a culture that welcomes families and invite partners and children to work functions. Be supportive in questions of child care and allow people to work remotely if their family is based elsewhere.
Most women I have met in the sciences, however self-confident, end up at a disadvantage when they choose to have children. Due to a lack of supportive work environments, many female scientists decide to leave science, settle for less senior roles or move with their partner the moment children become involved.
Every company can help to lower these practical hurdles, and it is worth it, not only for moral reasons, but to create a more interesting and stimulating work environment for everyone involved.
Guest writer: Sahar Shoja