Jacinta May had always been interested in music and literature, but also physics and chemistry. Then, on “one magical day”, she was enthralled by a lecture on quantum computing – and knew it was for her.
Born to a family of artists, Jacinta May, 21, has been playing the harp since age 6, and long had a fascination with science, toying with chemistry kits as a child. Then, when she was 9, she went to an astronomy night at Macquarie University with her father, where she was introduced to astrophysics and bowled over when looking through the telescopes.
“It was just so beautiful,” she recalls. “These stars in the sky, they weren’t just bright lights – they were massive balls of fiery gas. It absolutely blew my mind.”
But it was attending a lecture, at the age of 15, by Professor Michelle Simmons – the renowned physicist at UNSW and former Australian of the Year – that she knew quantum computing was for her. “I have a very clear memory of that magical day,” Jacinta enthuses. “She showed electrons populating a cavity, so you could manipulate them to probe phenomena and use it for computation. That was amazing. It was the moment I fell in love with quantum computing.”
That passion was evident in her first year of a Bachelor of Science with a double major in physics and chemistry at the University of Sydney, where she talked herself into a position as a paid research assistant at Microsoft’s Station Q on campus. “I approached Professor David Reilly about doing volunteer work in the lab – I was really keen! I knew a lot about the field and thought I could get some real-world research experience. So, we got to talking, then he offered me a job. I didn’t expect that at all!”
For the past two years, Jacinta has worked at Reilly’s Quantum Nanoscience Lab, part of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS). She’s been involved in designing and fabricating quantum devices and conducting experiments that advance the lab’s goal of creating fully functional topological qubits, or quantum bits, the basic unit of data in a quantum computer.
“I was so starstruck at meeting people who were first authors on all these papers I admired, and then discovered they struggled with some of the same things that I do,” Jacinta says.
Then she won an Undergraduate Research Scholarship from Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA) to tackle a project with Professor Alex Hamilton at UNSW. The scholarship gave her an opportunity to gain invaluable real-world research experience during a six-week project, supervised by Professor Hamilton, where she focused on topologically protected quantum entanglement, as well as one-dimensional quantum point contacts in gallium arsenide substrates.
“It’s a fantastic organisation,” Jacinta says of SQA. “The ability to go to a different lab, take on research questions that are very different, experience a new environment and culture – I just love it. It gets me outside of my little bubble and allows me to apply my skill set to new questions.”
She finds people in the field open and friendly; “You’re able to ask any question, because you know them personally, as well as professionally.” Jacinta plans to do a PhD and work in quantum science, especially computers, and she’s already scoping out her research topic. But she still plays her concert pedal harp when she can: “I do that to keep me sane when quantum drives me mad,” she grins.
She sees art and science meeting in quantum mechanics, the same way one of her heroes, physicist Richard Feynman, once did. “His Nobel speech has always resonated with me, where he talks about being in a little corner of the universe, and nature revealing herself to him and him alone, allowing him to make a small contribution to understanding the majesty of it all.
“It’s like John Keats said in one of my favourite poems: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”
– Wilson da Silva