How PhD Student Irene Fernández de Fuentes found the freedom to explore her passion for quantum physics – and make lasting friendships – on the other side of the world.
By Wilson da Silva
“QUANTUM COMPUTING is a hot topic,” says Irene Fernández de Fuentes, 27. “It’s probably the most immediately successful field in the quantum space, and there’s going to be a lot of opportunities. But it also interested me quite a lot – just the idea that quantum states could make information processing more powerful seemed really intriguing to me.”
Irene was one of the first PhD students to join the Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA) on a Supplementary Scholarship. SQA is a partnership between four universities – Macquarie University, University of Sydney, UNSW and UTS – backed by the NSW Government – which provides scholarships of up to $35,000 a year and access to career development and exclusive benefits.
After completing her bachelor’s in physics in her native Spain, she landed an eight-month internship at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, one of the world’s best centres for experimental and theoretical research in elementary particle physics. It was there she first heard about opportunities in Australia, when her U.S. supervisor suggested it was a good environment for quantum computing. “So, I did what a millennial does – I googled ‘quantum computing in Australia’ and found all these cool groups in Sydney, so I applied. And I later discovered there was also the possibility of a scholarship through SQA.”
Now doing her PhD at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at UNSW, she’s studying under Professor Andrea Morello, a global leader in quantum research who is widely known as an inspiring science communicator. And she’s loving the experience.
There, she is exploring using atoms of antimony, a lustrous grey metalloid, as the core of a ‘flip-flop qubit’. This is a novel design for quantum bits (or ‘qubits’) – the basic unit of information in a quantum computer – that were developed at UNSW and use both the electron and the nucleus of the atom to create a ‘spin qubit’ for a silicon quantum computer. UNSW’s design initially used phosphorous but is now probing antimony as the element that may be able to encode more quantum information.
“I thought coming to Australia was going to be an adventure, and it has been,” Irene says. “But being part of SQA has also turned out to be really fun. It has created a community of people who share an interest in quantum computing and technologies."
“It gives us a lot of tools to develop ourselves through courses, talks, workshops and meetups,” she added. “For me, the coolest element has been the social side – there’s good energy and people come together, share, meet, and make friends. These are going to be my colleagues, so when I need to collaborate or need advice or to share an idea, they’ll always be there. It’s a great way to make connections and network.
“For me, SQA is like a link between nodes which creates connections that will advance my career, and probably advance the science.”
Originally from the small north-western Spanish city of Valladolid, the centre of the Spanish kings in medieval times, Irene completed her bachelor’s in Madrid and then undertook two semesters in Germany under the European Union’s Erasmus program.
While in Europe, she had been considering a career as a theoretical physicist – but then she met Juan José Gómez Cadenas, a professor of physics at Spain’s Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics, who was leading NEXT, a project to search for neutrinoless double-beta decay at an underground laboratory in the Pyrenees, a mountain range between Spain and France.
“That’s when I fell in love with the experimental side,” she recalls. “He was so honest with nature and so respectful, probing nature, poking at it to try and figure out what’s going on. And he has big dreams – people who have big dreams and big ambitions are just so very inspiring.”
To her delight, she found the atmosphere in Sydney to be similarly ambitious and creative. “I feel that Australia gives this sense of possibility – like, okay, you want to do it, you can do it. There’s real freedom to explore here. That’s one of the components of SQA that really works and has such a good energy. It gives us a sense that what we do actually matters and it’s important for the future.”