Summer research students have an atomic blast

Walking through the glossy halls of the ground floor of the UNSW Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (aka the C2CQT), we were instantly intimidated by the gravity of the research taking place there.

Through clean glass windows and doors lined by pristine white walls, we could see large pieces of complex metal machinery used for manipulating single atoms, and banks of instruments with flickering numbers and giant cylindrical fridges operating in milliKelvin.

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It was easy for us to assume that the researchers in this centre would be just as intimidating.

But as we were led through the Centre to the researcher workstations, the first object we encountered was a surfboard, placed casually atop a row of filing cabinets.

Then, upon being introduced to a few researchers and our interview subjects – Undergraduate students and Summer Research Scholarship recipients Mathew McEwen, Bradley Lewis, Ian Bartlett and David Webb – it became apparent that jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, self-deprecation and sarcastic jokes were the standard MO of any self-respecting quantum researcher.

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When asked to describe themselves in one sentence, ala a John Hughes movie, Matt McEwen didn’t hesitate:

“You see us as you want to see us – the computer engineer, the mechanical engineer, the physicist and the mathematician.” *

All four students were relaxed, and clearly felt at home in their impressive high-security surroundings, as they spoke about the summer research program and how they became involved in the complex science that is quantum computing.

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For Matt, the self-described computer engineer and self-confessed “typical computer geek”, his love for quantum computing began when he saw Michelle Simmons (centre director) present her work at an event for gifted high school students.

He approached her afterwards, they chatted about her research, and he was so intrigued that he decided to pursue the same path.

Speaking about the summer scholarship program, Brad (the mathematician) advised students looking to do a research project at the C2CQT:

“Simply come into the Centre, introduce yourself, and get involved. They are very friendly and open here.

“Just start showing up, get a feel for the place and speak to people, especially in Semester 2, before the Summer Scholarship program begins”.

The guys were effusive about the way the summer research scholarship program had enriched their undergraduate experience, and was helping them make decisions for the future.

Ian, the mechanical engineer about to enter his third year of study, is grateful for the way his research in the program is “clearly demonstrating the connections between all the different subjects” he has been studying over the last two years, and a practical application thereof.

David (the physicist) is entering his honours year next year, and is happy to be “getting a feel for honours” and “experiencing research in a different field, before having to decide on an honours project”.

All four agreed that the program gives students valuable exposure to the real working side of the field, moving far beyond the theory provided in lectures; and that it was great being surrounded by such helpful and enthusiastic academics.

Also, the coffee is delicious and only 30c a cup.

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The Summer Vacation Research Scholarships program runs every year over December and January, and applications for 2014 will open in July.

More information: http://www.science.unsw.edu.au/svrs

*This quote may or may not have been embellished for artistic effect 

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