Imagine typing a very complex query into your computer and having to wait more than a lifetime for results. Thanks to scientists like Davide Venturelli, supercomputers of the future could return those results in a fraction of a second.
Davide is a quantum computer research scientist for the Universities Space Research Association. Quantum theory explains how matter acts at the tiniest levels; in applying it to computing, researchers study ways in which that behavior can advance processing power. “We explore how to control these quantum behaviors, to make them happen on demand, in order to crunch numbers and process information,” he says. “We’re pushing the boundaries of what is known in computer science.”
Quantum computer research scientists help to solve problems. In their research, they make scientific assumptions based on quantum theory and then conduct experiments to test whether their solutions work.
These scientists may be involved in a variety of projects but often focus on a specific goal. Davide focuses on finding new ways of applying quantum theory to improve how computers solve optimization problems—that is, problems for finding the best of all possible solutions. Digital computers, which are most common today, process information using variables with 1 value (either 0 or 1) at a time. Quantum computers can use both values simultaneously, which results in faster processing. “We know that quantum computers are more powerful than digital computers,” he says, “but we don’t know by how much yet.”
Research. In studying information technology, quantum computer research scientists think about possibilities. For example, Davide asks questions in his research such as, “What is the fastest possible way we can make computers process information?”
Davide and other research scientists use their understanding of quantum theory to come up with solutions. Their research may lead to problem-solving computer processes that calculate and sort information much faster. For example, research scientists might develop a theoretical solution that can be run only on quantum computers designed to produce better weather forecasts.
Experiments. To test whether their theories work, quantum computer research scientists may conduct experiments or work with experimental physicists. For example, they may create a quantum environment with computer hardware, then test how particles in that environment react to different levels of laser intensity. Experiments that verify a theory may lead to improvements, such as more efficient computer design and faster, more secure communication for computer networks.
But relying on theory means that scientists work with incomplete information—so they’re sometimes surprised at the outcomes. “Experiments may result in the opposite of what you expect,” says Davide, “and you analyze the data to try to figure out why.”
Other job duties. Research scientists may write articles about their findings for academic journals or devise ways to apply their research to advance their employer’s goals. Some research scientist have other responsibilities. For example, Davide also manages external research collaborations for NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
To become a quantum computer research scientist, you usually need a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). But you need some qualities and skills in addition to the formal credential.
Qualities and skills. As researchers, quantum computer research scientists should enjoy being part of a team and sharing their findings with others, which may include engineers, mathematicians, physicists, and Ph.D. students. This collaboration helps bring varied perspectives to solving a problem. “There’s a cross-utilization of ideas when you work with different groups,” Davide says. “My colleagues are very smart and open-minded people.”
Like many scientists, quantum computer research scientists must have strong analytical, critical thinking, and reasoning skills to solve complex problems. Attention to detail is critical as scientists precisely record their theories and experiments, which must be reproducible and able to withstand peer review.
Communication skills are also important. To share their research with collaborators or the public, quantum research scientists must be able to write papers and present their findings at conferences. They may also need to write proposals for grants to fund research projects.
Education. Quantum computer research scientists usually need a Ph.D. to learn methods of discovery and to develop the tools needed for researching. Coursework in undergraduate and graduate degree programs typically includes computer science, mathematics, and physics.
You may decide to pursue a master’s degree with classes in quantum computing before entering a Ph.D. program. Davide studied physics at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, but he was passionate about computers, too. Not surprisingly, quantum computing piqued his interest. “It’s a wonderful interaction between the two disciplines,” he says. Davide earned his Ph.D. in nanophysics and numerical simulations of condensed matter.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not collect data specifically on quantum computer research scientists. Instead, BLS may count these workers among physicists, of which 15,650 were employed in May 2015. The median annual wage for physicists in colleges, universities, and professional schools—where most quantum computer research scientists are likely to work—was $63,840. That’s more than the median annual wage of $36,200 for all workers.
Quantum computer research scientists work primarily indoors, in academic settings, and may travel frequently to attend seminars or conferences. Area of focus or project type may dictate specific details of their work. For example, testing particularly intricate theories may take days or months, working either independently or with other scientists.
Whether alone or with colleagues, Davide enjoys his work for the independence his job offers. “You have lots of intellectual freedom. Nobody really tells you what to do,” he says. “It’s up to your skills and vision.”
Domingo Angeles, "Quantum computer research scientist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2016.