January 2023: Close Up

Meeting Needs at the Intersection of Quantum Physics and Computer Science

Michael HatridgeMichael Hatridge, an associate professor in the Dietrich School’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is doing super-cool work in quantum physics (pun intended) and is spearheading a new major to help students prepare for the changing job market.

The Hatridge lab (aka Hatlab) works in superconducting quantum circuits, a field Hatridge says he came into “through the side door.” Hatridge has always been interested in building things, and during his doctoral work he built MRI machines that work at very low fields. His work on a new magnetometer design ultimately lead him down his current career path. To improve the design of the magnetometer, Hatridge and his team harnessed new technology in quantum circuits.

“We kind of accidentally made a really, really good measurement system. Right after I graduated, people used it for the first quantum jump experiments on superconducting qubits,” Hatridge remembers. “Usually, things work worse than you hope. It’s really easy to make a bunch of optimistic choices and not have them come out. This thing had this hidden quantum feature where it was something like 10 times better than we could explain without a hidden quantum amplifier in the device … it's the only time I ever had to say, ‘It's too good!'"

As someone who loves building sensors and instrumentation, Hatridge finds himself at the intersection of device fabrication and quantum research.

“We try to build quantum devices that operate at very low temperatures,” Hatridge explains. “They can be used for things that don't have a lot to do with quantum mechanics at all, like detectors, sensors of magnetism or photons, or they can be used for more quantum-centric things like quantum computation and quantum measurement.”

Hatridge brought his research program to the Dietrich School’s Department of Physics and Astronomy because the department supported his type of work. He says it has been a good decision.

“I really enjoy it; I have a beautiful lab,” says Hatridge. “A lot of investment has happened in facilities since I've been here. The nanofabrication facility in particular has been massively upgraded. We just got our new beautiful e-beam pattern generator online, which is an example of the kinds of improvements that have come.”

Recently, Hatridge spearheaded an effort to launch a new major designed to prepare students to meet an emerging need in his field and within companies that are performing work in the quantum realm.

“Places like IBM and Google and a bunch of startups and universities are growing these quantum efforts, but they can't hire everybody at the PhD level, so they're trying to hire undergraduates,” Hatridge says. “One focus of the major is to figure out how to teach people so that they are a good fit with these kinds of companies.”

In addition, the major is designed to help prepare students for graduate school.

“Quantum computing is the merger of these two fields of physics and computing,” Hatridge says. “A typical physicist doesn't have to take any computer science to get all the way to their PhD, and similarly, a typical computer scientist is never going to take quantum mechanics. We need people who can see both sides and straddle the divide because the divide is pretty deep.”

According to Hatridge, quantum computing requires efficient communication between physicists and computer scientists. This major is tailored to give students the background they need to function effectively in both fields.

“We really need people that are comfortable in this new area of quantum information, which is not a pure physics field and not a CS field,” Hatridge says. “There are not a lot of hybrid PhDs right now, so even though we want to start training people towards this hybrid discipline, we want to make sure that right now you can still get into graduate school. So we have those tracks built in to make sure that students are ready.”

Hatridge emphasizes that the major is not exclusively for students who want to study quantum principles, and that most physics students can benefit from coursework in computer science.

“This idea that physicists should know more about computing in general is really important. When you look at what physicists actually do in their lives, 90+% of them have computer-intensive jobs. But the physics major doesn't prep them for that. So they kind of have to do that on their own. And on the CS side, this physics thinking, the way that we approach problem solving, can be pretty valuable, too.”

Regardless of the direction students chose after graduation, understanding computing is a valuable asset.

“For my graduate students in the Hatlab, if you have a good physics background and you can program really well, I would just be ecstatic. The same for my undergraduate program. Even if you switch to astronomy or some other science, they're going to say, ‘Oh, you can program really well, and you have good science knowledge? Wonderful!’” says Hatridge.

The major was recently approved and is now available for students to enroll in. Additional information will be rolling out in the coming weeks. Students in the Dietrich School and the School of Computing and Information are eligible for the program.

“The way that experiments work these days—it's not pencil and paper, and it's not knobs anymore,” says Hatridge. “And so being very comfortable living with these complicated programming environments that we actually use to control stuff is really handy.”

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