Celebrating Black talent at IBM Quantum


IBM Quantum is committed to building the best future for quantum computing through our hardware, our software, and perhaps most importantly, through the people we’re welcoming to the future quantum workforce.

As we honor and celebrate Black History Month, it’s worth reflecting the state of our own field. Science has long suffered from a lack of diversity, and especially a lack of Black scientists, due to a history that at times explicitly and implicitly barred their participation. In the field of physics, for example, Black Americans represent only 1 percent of the total number of PhDs. And the number of Black students graduating with a physics PhD has been decreasing since 2012. These unacceptable statistics are not in line with our vision for the future of quantum computing.

We have a lot of work to do if we want to build the vibrant quantum workforce that we envision, some of which we’ve already kicked off. This past September, we launched the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center, now offering educational support, research funding, and hardware access to 23 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. We’ve also partnered with The Coding School to bring quantum computing education to a diverse cohort of students as early as high school, and continue to work internally to build a quantum team whose diversity reflects that of the broader world.

In recognition of Black History Month, we spoke with a few of our growing cohort of Black team members working to build the future of quantum computing. The four featured here perform indispensable roles at each level of the quantum stack, from researching quantum algorithms and their potential applications to building a global quantum ecosystem. We hope you’ll follow along and celebrate their accomplishments with us today and into the future.

Gavin Jones: Manager, Research Staff Member – Quantum Applications

Gavin Jones, Manager, Research Staff Member – Quantum Applications

Gavin Jones hadn’t heard of quantum computing during his first few years at IBM Research. After all, he was a chemist and full-time research staff member working to figure out how to make advanced functional polymers. Then one day, his lab manager called him in and asked whether quantum computing would be useful for quantum chemists. He studied up — and today, he’s the manager of a team that works to figure out how quantum computing could be used to study applications in chemistry and materials in the future.

Jones leads a group that works on problems in collaboration with clients in order to simulate materials and reactions that might one day benefit from quantum speedups, such as investigating organic light-emitting diodes with Mitsubishi Chemical and investigating battery chemistry processes with Daimler. The team asks questions about fundamental processes, works to improve the techniques that quantum computers use to model these processes, and attempts to maximize the accuracy of their results with fewer resources.

“As computational chemists, we struggle with accuracy, and our experiments often return results that are more qualitative than quantitative,” he said. “If quantum computing eventually becomes something reliable that we can use routinely, that will be a great boon for us.”

Jones is hopeful for the future of chemistry with quantum computing, in part thanks to the announcement of IBM’s recent hardware and software roadmaps. At the moment, quantum computational chemists are limited by the number of qubits that they can use as well as the coherence times of the qubits. But with better gates and lower errors, they’ll hopefully be able to increase the speed and accuracy of their calculations — and perhaps even identify quantum advantages, or places where quantum computers provide a computational benefit over classical computers.

“I’m hopeful that in the next few years, we can begin working with systems that will make the rest of the chemistry community as well as potential clients take notice, and say, hey, we need to jump on this bandwagon.”

Suhare Nur: IBM Quantum Global Lead for Commercial Ecosystem

Suhare Nur, IBM Quantum Global Lead for Commercial Ecosystem

On top of algorithms, if we want quantum computing to be commercially successful, we’ll need to build a commercial ecosystem around it. That requires helping clients figure out whether and how they’ll be able to use quantum computers for their own applications and getting them quantum ready if they can. That’s a crucial bridge that Suhare Nur is helping to build.

Nur is a physicist by training, having researched fuel cells for her PhD at Harvard. However, she realized that, while she was a good scientist and experimentalist, she wasn’t able to articulate the business value of what she was working on. This drove her to take a role as a management consulting at the Boston Consulting Group. There, she mostly consulted on strategy and operations-type problems — nothing really science related. But then, in 2017, she had the opportunity to co-author a report on the potential value that quantum computing might bring in the coming years. She realized that quantum computing was the perfect place for her to flex both her business and her physics muscles.

Today, Nur works across IBM’s ecosystem partners, which includes system integrators, consulting firms, and those looking to use quantum computers for their own applications or to introduce it to their clients. Her job features two important pieces: enablement, or lowering the barrier-to-entry for partners who are new to quantum, and support, or working with partners to chart our what go-to-market might look like for them, their clients, and their industry.

Nur enjoys working on the IBM Quantum team thanks to the environment of collaboration, the overall accessibility of her teammates, and the diversity. She was excited to be able to join a black-in-quantum Slack group in her first week on the job, and pointed out that the company culture felt like one where people openly talk about diversity-related issues. Perhaps most importantly, she feels like the IBM Quantum team is a place she’ll be able to make a difference.

“What I do has to matter,” she said. “I don’t want to spend even a minute doing something if it wouldn’t leave the world a little different than before. And I feel like the work I do really does matter. We’re laying the foundation for how the industry will evolve for the net few decades.”

Mark Schulterbrandt: Software Engineer for Quantum Systems

Mark Schulterbrandt, Software Engineer for Quantum Systems

Accessing quantum computers requires infrastructure — and that’s where the work of Mark Schulterbrandt and the Cloud and Development Operations team comes in.

“Think of quantum computing as a trip. We have scientists hoping to run some code, and the destination is the quantum computer. My team is the highway that takes you on the journey to that destination,” he said.

Schulterbrandt explained that he’s always been a “computer guy” since his dad bought him his first computer when he was seven. When he started collecting basketball trading cards, his dad suggested he learn how to program a database to keep track of the cards he needed. School was just time he wished he could have been spent programming — he knew he had to be a software engineer. He eventually ended up at NBC Sports, but when he heard about quantum computing from one of his former coworkers who had joined the IBM Quantum team, he was immediately interested.

Joining the IBM Quantum team was an opportunity for Schulterbrandt to indulge in his curiosity; the cloud always seemed like a black box to him, so working on the cloud was an opportunity to see what was going on inside. IBM Quantum Experience is, at its core, a cloud-based service connecting users to real quantum computers. Schulterbrandt’s team maintains the backbone of the service, like the servers that the IBM Quantum Experience runs on; if there’s an outage on the cloud, a new API feature, or new hardware, his team is there to help.

Schulterbrandt has valued being in a place where he can always learn, and has found that IBM Quantum is a place where merely being on the team affords tons of learning opportunities — sometimes, it seems, merely by osmosis. He has also appreciated the team more in 2020; during times that were especially challenging for he and his Black colleagues, his managers often reached out to see how he was doing on a personal level, he said.

Cheniqua “Che” Allen: Workforce Advocacy Project and Events Manager, IBM Quantum

Cheniqua “Che” Allen, Workforce Advocacy Project and Events Manager, IBM Quantum

Few people know more about shaping the future of the quantum workforce (or more about IBM in general) than Cheniqua “Che” Allen. As the Workforce Advocacy Projects and Events manager, “recruit and retain a diverse talent pipeline” is part of Allen’s job description, literally. And, with 21 years at IBM, she has the expertise to make it happen.

Allen has had a handful of job roles in her time at IBM, but most recently worked in enterprise finance and operations as a project manager, guiding clients who outsourced their infrastructure to IBM. But the job posting for the quantum team stood out to her, since she would be working with early professional hires and interns and helping plan social events. Allen is outgoing and loves meeting new people, so the job felt like a natural fit given her prior experience.

In her role, Allen recruits interns and early professionals from major conferences like the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) conference, the CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Conference (TAPIA), Grace Hopper, and others. She also leads project management for strategic initiatives, is working with the education team to develop a student engagement platform, and plans events for current interns.

Building a quantum workforce is about more than just recruiting physicists, Che said. There’s a strong talent pool out there with students holding valuable skills, who may be simply be intimidated by the word “quantum.” If companies aren’t engaging with the widest possible pool, they might miss students who would otherwise be qualified for some of the nascent roles in the budding quantum ecosystem. Many of today’s HBCUs, for example, are only beginning to grow their quantum computing programs — but these students already bring other important skills and experiences that make them well-rounded additions to the quantum team.

“I didn’t know anything about quantum when I started this role,” Allen said, “But I’m trainable. If the educational resources are available, candidates without a physics background can be just as valuable as those who are more physics-focused.”

 

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