by Jennifer O'Brien

Why Michelle Simmons was destined to be in STEM

Apr 26, 2018
Technology Industry

Recently named 2018 Australian of the Year, UNSW scientist, Michelle Simmons, has always tried to be different and push the boundaries. Right from an early age, she knew she wanted a career in science and technology.

“When I was younger, I always wanted to be in something that was very technical. I liked it to be challenging. I liked to create something. I liked to build something that didn’t exist before, and I liked to be pushing the boundaries of what is known, and expanding the fundamental knowledge,” Simmons tells CIO Australia.

Today, as director of UNSW-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), Simmons is being recognised for her pioneering physics research and inspiring leadership in quantum computing.

As she leads a team of more than 200 researchers at eight universities across the country developing a cache of quantum computing technologies – and teaches undergraduate science students at UNSW – she’s working to build the first quantum computer in silicon. Simmons says her team is the only one in the world that can manipulate individual atoms to make atomically precise electronic devices.

Her end game? To see Australia take advantage of the groundbreaking technology – both economically and culturally – in what is considered a ‘game changer’ for most industries from health to finance to transportation.

The unique Australian approach of creating quantum bits from precisely positioned individual atoms in silicon is reaping major rewards, with the UNSW Sydney-led scientists showing for the first time that they can make two of these atom qubits “talk” to each other.

No doubt, Simmons is at the forefront of what she calls the “space race of the computing era”. Her aim is to one day create a quantum computer that can solve problems in minutes – problems that would otherwise take thousands of years.

Curiosity takes hold

Looking back over her early days, Simmons says she has “always been curious about the world,” even if the adults around her were often unaware of just how much.

“As a kid I was always serious. Deep down I like to have fun, but I’m dominated by a joy of understanding the world. So there’s a pure happy joy at the core, but I recognise that to understand things takes a bit of effort. I love understanding complex things.”

She recalls her experiences with the game of chess as another example of her budding curiosity – and one that was initially overlooked by her father, who eventually became aware of her talents.

“From an early age, I used to watch my brother and Dad play chess. And then one day, I would play. But he was very dismissive. He didn’t think I knew how to play because he had never taught me, but I’d been watching for a while. And when I did play, he wasn’t really paying attention. Eventually playing him, and after only 20 minutes, I actually ended up cheque mating him, and he was really surprised by that.”

Going forward, she says her Dad recognised Simmons could do things that he didn’t expect, and so worked to support her and push her to do her best.

“He fired me up to always try my best from an early age. The great thing about trying your best is you do feel satisfied when you’ve done something. Once you get into that way of thinking, it’s self-fulling. You do your best and then you get the pleasure of understanding it, and that makes you want to do better.”

Rocky start

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Simmons on the education front, who says she had a rough start because she attended a rough school in London where education wasn’t valued.

“There was no strong drivers or awards system there. It was just a case of most people were just trying to get through school. I guess I fundamentally liked understanding things and so I was always curious, asking lots of questions. I just loved learning. And if you have that, you have it wherever you are – even if the school isn’t so great.”

Eventually her circumstances changed and her journey into science began – partly inspired by an unconventional and supportive physics teacher. As a result, she began working in the field and was motivated to try to understand some of the fundamental quantum effects in semiconductors, which were deeply fundamental and gave insight into the way the world works.

“At the time I remember thinking, ‘This is very satisfying, but actually it would be even more satisfying if we could take some of these effects and then use them to build something that would help everybody. That would do something that didn’t exist before, so turn it from a fundamental understanding to an actual application of some kind.’”

And today that’s what her work encompasses here in Australia – as she and her team work to build a system that’s fundamentally useful for the world. Simmons moved to Australia from the UK 18 years ago, and has since transformed the UNSW Quantum Physics Department into an internationally recognised leader of advanced computing systems.

“Fundamentally, we’re trying to build electronic devices with a functional element in a single atom, and so the rationale for doing that, is really to understand fundamentally how nature works at that level,” she said.

“That was how I got into the field, recognising that if you could control matter at that level – and actually encode information on a single atom – then you would be able to potentially build a quantum computer where the whole computer works in a quantum machine.

“So, for me, there was the fundamental technical challenge of, ‘Can you build electronic devices where you can control where the atoms sit,’ and then if you can, ‘Can you actually encode information on the atom? And then if you can do that, ‘Can you actually build a quantum computer?’”

She said the ultimate goal is to build a system that is fundamentally useful for the world, and she is working to determine whether her team has the torch and the equipment to be able to probe and measure and fabricate.

“My pathway forward was always, ‘Let’s make the most accurate torch, let’s make the most simplest system, let’s get rid of as many variables as possible and just take it down – literally in our case we have two atoms – and then see if we can make a device that in some ways is as simple as it can be, but it requires the actual precision of the tools to make it.”

Pushing boundaries

She says it all comes down to “pushing the boundaries” of technology that currently exists.

“It is taking tools that have been developed for one purpose, and adapting them for another purpose. Or it is taking the tools and completely developing them to actually see what it is we are building.”

As an example, she says the team took a microscope that is used to image atoms, and then adapted it, not just to image them, but to be able to manipulate them in an electronic device where the bonds are very strong.

“Once you’re able to manipulate them, you can actually then demonstrate or build a whole device in three-dimensions,” she says.

“The key part of that is pushing the boundaries of the actual tools that we use to image and control the world – pushing that to the level where you can literally see into digital atoms. And it is not just seeing the atom themselves, but it is seeing the wave function of the electron on the atom. It is really a series of new techniques that we’ve developed to fabricate and measure those devices.”

She says the key driver for her was recognising that if you want to build a quantum computer, then you’ve got to be able to build something that is reproducible in the quantum world.

“The quantum world is quite fragile and difficult to understand, so let’s try and choose a system that is as simple as we can make it, and replicate that system. And if we can replicate that, then we can actually start to build a computer.”

Asked some real world applications of the technology, and implications for humanity, Simmons says the ground breaking discovery would revolutionise weather forecasting, drug design and artificial intelligence – to name a few.

“There is this prediction that if you can encode information in quantum states, rather than classical, then there are certain types of problems that you will get exponential speed up in the way you can solve problems. So problems that we simply couldn’t solve in our lifetime we would be actually able to do.

“Going forward, there are lots of algorithm in terms of looking at drug design or accurate and predictive weather forecasting – there are lots of different applications that people are starting to see internationally. And that’s really where the excitement from the field is because with classical computing there are limitations to things that you can do, in a timely fashion.”

Meanwhile, Simmons has also taken the world leading research on quantum computers to the point where it’s now being commercialised, founding the company Silicon Quantum Computing.

If successful, the company will position Australia to be a leading technological nation in the 21st century, Simmons says.

“I’m conscious we have something very unique in the way that we are building and designing things, so I’m making sure we have enough technical engineering and business expertise around so we capitalise on what we’re trying to build.”

Inner strength

Acknowledging she didn’t look to any one person, or have any particular mentors along the way, she suggests the biggest problems or challenges in life come when you look outside yourself for encouragement and guidance.

“The biggest challenge of anyone’s life is their expectations of who they are. And so to really look at the things that you like, and the things that you like doing, and then to see where you want to go in life, you need to then base your life on your own personal experience and what motivates you.

“In some ways looking at how other people are comparing us is a little bit dangerous – and then you start to do things that aren’t inherently your strengths or your passions.”

Additionally, she has also had to overcome her debilitating belief that she’s a “support person” and not the leader in charge, a thought process that has rightly corrected itself over the years.

“The barrier has always been my own perception of myself. Through my early career, I had this joke that I always felt like I was the No 2 person, or wingman, support crew, the person behind the big initiative, and the one there picking up the pieces. And I never really considered myself to be a leader.

“There is also always this perception that women won’t do well, but I’ve actually had that in a positive way because it has meant that not many people have paid attention to what I’m doing, and so I can just get on with things.”

Eventually, she says she found her voice and has become what she describes as a “benevolent leader.”

“I love to challenge people and because I’ve learnt about myself – over a period of time realised where my own boundaries were by every now and then stepping across them – I love to work with my team about where their boundaries are, and encourage them to try to push their boundaries. I have found a lot of satisfaction in my life from doing that and I love to encourage that.”

And she admits she’s on a race against time. “Being able to elongate time would be good because everyday there’s a whole series of technical issues, and fundamental understanding issues, and one of the things about being a researcher is you have to maintain momentum, whilst at the same time, recognise that knowledge grows at a certain pace.

“To get the balance between learning as fast as you can, and pushing the technology boundaries constantly – is one of the things that is always going to be challenging. My only thing is that time will run out on me.”