Episode 11: Dr Alba Cervera-Lierta
How can quantum computers be combined with conventional supercomputing facilities, and where will the infrastructure come from to support the future quantum computing ecosystem? Take a listen to Episode 11 of insideQuantum to find out!
This week we’re featuring Dr Alba Cervera-Lierta, a Senior Researcher at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC-CNS) and coordinator of the Quantum Spain project. Dr Cervera-Lierta obtained her PhD from the University of Barcelona, followed by a postdoctoral position at the University of Toronto, before returning to Barcelona to take up her current role.
🟢 Steven Thomson (00:06): Hi there, and welcome to insideQuantum, the podcast telling the human stories behind the latest developments in quantum technologies. I’m Dr. Steven Thomson, and as usual, I’ll be your host for this episode. In previous episodes, we’ve talked about the details of various aspects of quantum technologies. We’ve talked about the algorithms that will perform quantum computing operations and discussed the hardware that quantum computers will be built from. But for quantum computers to really take off, we need more than that. We need not just the hardware and the software, but also the infrastructure and the surrounding ecosystems. Today’s guest is playing a key role in creating this ecosystem. It’s a pleasure to welcome Dr. Alba Cervera-Lierta, a senior researcher at the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre and coordinator of the Quantum Spain project. Alba, thank you so much for joining us here today.
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (00:54): Hello, Steven. Thanks for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.
🟢 Steven Thomson (00:58): So before we get onto discussing your role in the Quantum Spain project, let’s first talk about your journey to this point, and let’s go right back to the very beginning. What was it that first got you interested in quantum physics?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (01:11): So I decided that I wanted to pursue a physics career, a physics bachelor. But because I was…I was interested in astrophysics, in particle physics, this type of physics fields, let’s say. But then the middle of my bachelor, there was a subject in quantum information. So I was curious and attracted to that because I didn’t know, what does that mean? And it was, it felt interesting. So I just started, I just took that course and since then I just basically fell in love with quantum information and I decided that I really wanted to pursue a career in this field, and in particular in anything related with quantum mechanics was was interesting for me. So to me it was like a kind of nice way to implement the quantum mechanical principles for something that that has a real application, especially something that is developing so much in the recent years.
🟢 Steven Thomson (02:07): So you already knew very early on then in your bachelor’s that this is something that you wanted to do for a career, not just for a few more years of study, but something you really wanted to work on for a long period of time?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (02:18): Yeah. Actually, the story, it’s the following. So I was the first generation of the Bologna plan, which is…it was a change in the European plans at that time, it was, I think 2009, 2008, so more or less, So I was the first generation that took that plan, and this subject appears from nowhere. So it didn’t exist before. So that’s why I took that and it was, we were like only seven people at that time. Now it’s more than 50 people, and there is not enough spaces for everyone that wants to take that course. So before that, I didn’t know that this existed in the first place. But then once I discovered that, I just found that that was something completely different as I was expecting in our physics career. And I thought that that was a great opportunity to try something different.
(03:06): But at that time, quantum information, and in particular computation, was not as trendy as today. So when I finished my degree, I took a Master’s in particle physics, not in quantum information, but I was still thinking about quantum information. So that’s why it was during my PhD that I start to specialize more in quantum computing and information. But it was just a coincidence that there was a professor working on that in my university, but there were no Masters at the time, or very few of them, and no subjects. There were no pieces of news that talk about quantum computing. There were no podcasts like this one. So it was really, really at the beginning of all this hype.
🟢 Steven Thomson (03:47): So what made you decide to do that for your PhD rather than continuing with particle physics? Was it just something that had captured your imagination and wouldn’t let go? Or was there some more practical reason that you thought perhaps a career in this might be more stable, more interesting, something like that?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (04:03): Oh, definitely. It was not because I was thinking that that was more stable than any other thing, because to me it was a super new field. I didn’t know that it existed. And until I was in the middle of my PhD, I just realized that this field comes from the seventies and, and before that. So it was an old field, but there was not such a hype, like the hype that we are witnessing these days. So there were…it was not a trend in that sense. So it really took that, because I feel that that was interesting that quantum information in the end is, is a so broad and big field that has not only applications, but in the end conceptually speaking is a different way of treating information. And that was very interesting. I didn’t know that was possible to manipulate a quantum mechanical systems at an individual level to transmit information to compute in a completely different way. And that felt really, you know, novel and attractive to me. And it didn’t seem that it was possible at all until, you know, the recent years. But when I started, it seems more you know, mathematical physical theories that were interesting, and that that was all. So I’m really happy that I took that because now we are witnessing a really big expansion and revolution with all of this.
🟢 Steven Thomson (05:18): Yeah, I think you certainly got into the field at the right time, given the, as you say, all the hype that we’re seeing at the moment and the kind of rapid expansion of quantum information in so many different directions.
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (05:28): Yeah, definitely. So it was perfect timing .
🟢 Steven Thomson (05:31): Yeah. If you hadn’t gone down this route, then what would you have done instead?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (05:38): I’m not sure. Something that was clear in my mind is to pursue a PhD. I didn’t care about which field in particular. I liked all physics fields, to be honest. But I really wanted to do a PhD, so probably in particle physics or related subjects, because I really like particle physics even nowadays. So even if, if I don’t work on that actively, I still like it. So probably, yeah, PhD in particle physics or similar.
🟢 Steven Thomson (06:05): So at the moment then, you’re a senior researcher working in the field of quantum information. Can you tell us a bit about what’s the big picture goal of your field and your work in particular? How does your work fit into this bigger picture?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (06:20): So, as I was saying, when I started working in quantum information and computation, there was, you know, very little use of this technology. So of course, there is a lot of theory done. There was a lot of experiments going on in labs, but there was not such you know, relationship between theory and experiments beyond, you know, particular collaborations. So when at the middle of my PhD, it was announced by IBM that a quantum computer was in the cloud, would be in the cloud, so everybody could then use it. And that changed completely the way that I was thinking about this field. And I think that it also happened with other people, and that make a big revolution in that sense, because that means that quantum computers made the jump from an experimental setup to something that can be operational, to something that people from other fields can use without needing to have access to a lab.
(07:15): Right? So to me, this is just the beginning of what’s going on in this field. So this field was developed in the eighties, nineties. At the beginning of the 2000s, we start having the first big experiments, but still everything very experimental, very primordial in labs. And now it’s making a huge, huge step towards operation, to become operational, towards becoming and developing these infrastructures. Because now the technology is ready for this next level. So in that sense is the…precisely the field I’m working on. So, on one side, as a researcher, I’m working in near term quantum algorithms, which means everything that can be run in current term, quantum computers, which unfortunately is not all kind of algorithms, but there are many things that we can do and try. And on the other side, also helping to develop the infrastructure necessary to boost all this ecosystem.
(08:10): So in the end I’m working in a supercomputing center and something that is happening in this HPC community, high performance computing community, is until very recently they were not investing in quantum computers because we already have the super computers. There are a lot of things to do with super computers, and they were working in this level of development, the level of offering all the infrastructure to the users to use the machine for different applications. And quantum computers were not there yet, but this is changing. So quantum computers now are ready for that, and that’s why it has perfect sense that these super computing centers start acquiring these quantum computers and opening them to the public, to the users in the same way as it’s happening with super computers. So in that sense, I’m coordinating a project that is trying to do this thing for the particular ecosystem of Spain, but also Europe, because very recently, two weeks before we are speaking right now, it was awarded the first six European quantum computers in Europe, and one of them will be in Spain together with this other super…quantum computer, sorry, from the quantum Spain project.
(09:19): So we’ll have two quantum computers in our center. And this, as I was saying, this has perfect sense in a super computing center because we are the ones who acquire the technology and offer that to the users ,while universities and and other and also industry of course, develop the technology. And once it’s ready, they sell that to us.
🟢 Steven Thomson (09:39): That’s a really interesting position to be in, because as I say, we’ve spoken in previous episodes to people working on the theory of quantum computers. We’ve spoken to a few experimenters working in labs, working with technology that could be used in computers. And we’ve spoken to people working in companies as well who are trying to sort of, you know, sell the applications of quantum computers, but we’ve never spoken yet to someone who’s in this kind of middle realm of making them available to people, which I guess is the, is the really important part. If no one can use a quantum computer, then they may as well not exist. So that’s a really interesting place to be. So the current quantum computers are all quite small. You mentioned the IBM systems. I think they have, what is it between five and seven qubits for the publicly available ones? Are the computers that you’re looking to have in your supercomputing center, will they be comparable to this or will they be somewhat larger?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (10:30): So first of all, the idea is different from what, for instance, what a company like IBM is trying to, to do. Because in the end, any company that develops this technology, their goal is also to sell this technology and to improve it on one side. Because if you want to sell good quantum computers, first you need to develop them. In our case, we are acquiring whatever is in the market and put that as a public service because we are a public institution, I offer that to the users for free in that sense. So we expect to have different kind of devices. It will depend…so we are now under a public procurement process. I’m not sure, maybe when this is on air, maybe it’s already announced what will be the company that will install this quantum computer.
(11:12): But the idea is to start with very small chips, so probably five qubits or so, and is to start testing them because it’s not about only using these five qubits, which is something that is still, I mean, current state of the art or…even very simple state of the art. It’s about how to operate these five qubits in a sense that we need to decide how are we offering this service? How are we prioritizing the jobs that people are sending to us? How are we connecting this device with our super computer? Even though it’s a proof of concept thing, because five qubits is is a very simple experiment, we need to set up all the infrastructure and all the workflows necessary to operate the quantum computer together with the super computer, because that’s how is this field evolving in the super computing point of view, which is how to operate these two kinds of computational paradigms all together.
(12:07): And for that, you need to develop a lot of workshop, task managers and also some theory from computer science perspective of how to do that in practice. So that’s why we will start with the small devices. But the idea is our project will take three years and we will have an upgrade in the chip every six months. So we are taking the superconducting circuit technology, and the idea is we will install a dilution fridge and all the necessary equipment to control the quantum chips. But we will have an upgrade every six months with a bigger chip, with bigger capabilities. That means more qubits, better coherence times, less crosstalk, et cetera. So the idea is to end up this project, this quantum Spain project, probably in 20 qubits or more. Even though there is still not 100 qubits as some other companies, our goal is start playing with this technology, incorporate that into our infrastructures to be prepared for the future quantum computers. So we are not the ones, as I was saying, who develop the technology, but the ones who operates that. So we will, you know, be be ready and prepare to host any quantum computer in the future.
🟢 Steven Thomson (13:20): I see. So you’re creating the, the blueprint, I guess, for how to make these available. And I guess this is - you say you can build on it and, and get bigger and bigger chips in the future, but I guess also other sort of supercomputing centers and other institutes can then borrow the techniques that you’re developing and the procedures that you’re developing to also make quantum computers more available to, to researchers and companies in the public and so on. So in a sense you’re establishing the way that this will go out into the world and become a useful tool?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (13:51): Yeah, yeah, definitely. And let me add that we are not, of course, the only ones that are trying to do this thing. Actually, we…so the idea is we are not competing against other supercomputing centers or not against any company, of course. So the idea is we take our role as an operational infrastructure, let’s say, to put this at the level of a public service. But it’s not clear how to do that, of course. I mean, it’s very challenging how to operate a quantum computer in a very, you know, efficient way. Because it’s not an experiment that I run a particular quantum circuit, and that’s it. I mean, I need to receive quantum circuits all the time, operate that - and this is obviously hard. And on top of that, we need to design all of this from a very high level, so the user doesn’t care if there is a super conducting circuit quantum computer or a trapped iond quantum computer or any other kind of technology.
(14:45): So that’s why we really need to collaborate with other centers that are also trying to do this this kind of effort. And that’s why this this Euro HPC joint undertaking call, which is the recent call that was awarded another quantum computer for Barcelona and also other places in Europe. Our idea with this call was to collaborate between all the centers that were awarded with this quantum computer to share our methodologies, to share our technology - because in the end, we will have only one of them, but the idea is our software will also be compatible with other quantum computers and the other way around. So just to exchange what is the best way to, to host these, this kind of devices and shared technology in the end.
🟢 Steven Thomson (15:32): Okay. I see. So you mentioned there are a couple of different challenges involved in, in realizing this goal. Is there any particular challenge that is the, the biggest obstacle, or is it a case of a lot of small problems that all need to be solved in order for this to work?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (15:47): So I would say most of the challenges I’m sure will appear once we have the quantum computer on site and have to operate that, because the main difference that I can identify with respect to, you know, any user that goes to IBM or to any other company that offers the service in the cloud is, it’s not the same using a quantum computer in the cloud as having a quantum computer in your center, in your facility and having to operate that because that means you need to calibrate it. You need to deal with any possible you know, problem that occurs with the machine or with infrastructure in general, or with your server or with many other things. And this is really hard and not many people or companies have been able to do that. So I think it’s also the testimony of what happens when you move from the lab to this kind of infrastructure that if you can do that, that if you can do this jump, that means that the technology was ready. So it was ready to go to this next level of TLER or similar, because that means that it can be operated by people that are not experimental, you know, physicists working on the machine.
(16:58): And I’m sure that although we have a plan of course to deal with that, most of the problems and challenges will appear once we have the quantum computer on site. And I will say that besides of course the obvious challenges of keeping the device calibrated all the time and also managing all the jobs in order, you know, to grant access to a recently calibrated device as soon as possible to a particular user and so on and so forth. I think that also, all the workflows that we currently use for high performance computing are completely different. And they don’t think about, you know, quantum computing in any of these of their parts. So adapting these workflows, so I can run an algorithm both in a GPU, in a CPU, and in a QPU will be a very challenging thing, but at the same time, very exciting because we are mixing all kind of of technologies.
🟢 Steven Thomson (17:51): Hmm. I see. So let’s talk maybe a little bit about your research work. So one of your research interests is what we can do with computers and what’s called the noisy intermediate scale quantum era, the NISQ era. We’ve talked a little bit about this on some previous episodes, but for anyone who missed it, could you maybe give us a brief summary of what, what the NISQ era means and what the current challenges actually are?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (18:14): Yes. So NISQ stands for noisy intermediate scale quantum computers. And this…because current term quantum computers, first of all, they are small in a sense that they are formed of a few qubits. That’s why it’s intermediate scale, because we don’t have thousands of qubits. We only have 50 or as much maybe 100 in the recent years, but very few of them, and then noisy because they are not perfect. They don’t operate in a perfect regime, in a fault tolerant regime, as we say. And this, because the qubits of course they are affected by noise, they are affected by the environment, by radiation, by different sources of noise, the fabrication procedure is not perfect also. So that means that every time that I want to run a particular quantum circuit the result is not the one that I was expecting because this noise.
(19:02): So that’s why they call them a noisy. In the future, once we have enough qubits, we will have quantum error correction, which means that I transport these noisy qubits into logical qubits. So fault tolerance, and then I can run any possible algorithm. And the idea of NISQ is, okay, we don’t have perfect quantum computers, we don’t have big quantum computers, but can we do something interesting with these kind of devices? Because in the end, we are still controlling quantum mechanically individual atoms or individual circuits. So it’s still pretty awesome the kind of things that we can do. And the answer that most of us believe is yes, there is still room to some improvement and some quantum advantage with in this NISQ regime, although it’s still to be studied until which extent noisy intermediate scale quantum computers present any quantum advantage because super computers are really, really hard to beat, as you can imagine. But there are still some proposals and the most interesting proposals are precisely the ones that try to mix the best of the two worlds. So trying to run part of the circuit or part of the algorithm in a quantum computer and part of the algorithm in an HPC or in a classical computer in general. So it’s really interesting to see how can we combine techniques from different kinds of computation in order to extract the most from our quantum computer.
🟢 Steven Thomson (20:23): That’s really interesting. Can you give us any examples of the type of problem you could solve in this kind of hybrid way with a part classical and part quantum algorithm?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (20:34): Yes, there are many examples. I will say that probably, I mean the first one that was proposed was the so-called variational quantum eigensolver. And the idea is quantum simulation in the end, so to understand what’s going on in the microscopical level. So in the quantum mechanical level, at some point we will need quantum computers because simulating quantum systems is exponentially hard with a classical computer. And that’s why we are doing all of this in the end, or one of the main reasons. So the idea of this variational cirquit, variational quantum eigensolver is to compute the, some properties of a quantum system to simulate the quantum system in our quantum computer and to compute some of these of its properties using this hybrid approach. And in particular it was applied for chemistry, so to obtain the ground state energy of a molecule.
(21:22): And this interesting and this important because this energy, these ground state energies are closely related with activation energies of molecules. So it means if I will have a easy reaction or not, and this of course has many consequences in chemistry, and that goes from very basic quantum chemistry to development of materials or new reactions or new components, et cetera. And this is very simple, apparently - I mean, computational speaking, maybe not so complicated process - but still it requires a lot of effort from a computational perspective of how can I encode the biggest molecule possible in my quantum circuit? How can I extract the most from the classical part of the simulation to obtain the best parameters of this circuit and so on. And this is one of the main applications that people believe that that these devices will be useful for is quantum chemistry.
(22:18): And this is just one example because you can use exactly the same way of thinking, but replacing the molecule model by a quantum machine learning model, and you are trying to obtain some minimum of some cost function that gives you the result of your machine learning model. And that has, as you can imagine, many applications from scheduling, to solve classification problems or to obtain some knowledge from some quantum system or material and so on and so forth. And these are just two of the applications that people think about. But there are many, many more.
🟢 Steven Thomson (22:56): Yeah, it’s definitely a really exciting time. I think from my side, the, the quantum stimulation aspects of what we can do with these systems is really fascinating. Because as you say, the larger the system becomes, the more difficult it becomes to simulate classically, and then at a certain point, a certain very small point, right? It’s around about what, 20 to 24 qubits at that point, you can no longer solve these things exactly on a classical computer. And it’s kind of mind blowing. You know, we talk about these things scaling exponentially with system size, but when you actually try and run it yourself and you see the memory requirement of 19 qubit, 20, 21…you know, we know it’s exponential, but for some reason it wasn’t until I really tried to run these things myself and I saw how big the memory cost gets, how fast that I understood what exponential actually meant. .
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (23:41): Yeah. It gets really, really bad . At the same time also, all these classical computational scientists, they are improving their methods because of this push from quantum computers. So I guess that they don’t want to accept that quantum computers are so close and they, and in reaction to that, they improve their methods, which is amazing because that means that there is still a lot of room for improvements in super computation. So it’s very exciting to see, you know, different ways of thinking how they combine in order to extract the most. And also, I mean, fight against each other and see who is the one who run the biggest simulation.
🟢 Steven Thomson (24:22): Yeah. As someone who’s not directly involved with this, I’ve been finding it really interesting to see these papers coming out on arXiv where you have some quantum computer achieve some new record and then one week later someone manages to beat on a classical machine and then they both kind of leapfrog each other for a little while. It’s, as you say, it’s been really interesting to see how classical algorithms have been forced to improve by the dawn of these new quantum machines as well.
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (24:47): Yeah, definitely .
🟢 Steven Thomson (24:49): So one of the other things that you mentioned on your website as one of your research interests is high dimensional quantum computation. Can you tell us a bit about what that means and what it’s useful for?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (25:00): Yes. So when we talk about quantum computing, and we normally use the term qubits, which are the main blocks of the quantum information, but qubits are actually the main blocks of binary quantum information. So that means that each of these qubits can be in two quantum states, the zero or the one. But quantum mechanical systems are naturally high dimensional in a sense that there are more levels. It’s not only the zero and one, there are all other energy levels, there are other possible configurations that you can call 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on and so forth. So the idea of high dimensional quantum computation is precisely using these these other levels to perform also quantum algorithms and computation and also deal with the information in the end. And this is curious because traditionally classical computation has always been developed in the binary regime because I guess it was easier to build a transistor in a binary level.
(25:59): Although there exists ternary quantum…sorry, ternary classical computer that were built, I think it was in in during the seventies or so. At some point they become deprecated because everybody just fall for the binary ones. But this is still a universal model of computation. So nothing prevents you theoretically to do that. But in quantum it seems like more easier in a sense that I already have a device that has all these levels, actually I have to fight in order to not use these other levels because it’s easy to, you excite the qubits to these other levels and you don’t want that and so on. So the idea of this high-dimensional quantum computing is to adapt, in my case to try to adapt and extract the most, let’s say, of of each qudit, so D-dimensional system, to perform computation.
(26:46): And of course, you will not gain any exponential advantage of that if you compare that with qubits, but it’s a matter of a prefactor. So instead of storing your information in a two to the power of whatever space, you are storing your information in a some number like 3, 4, 5 to the power of that. So this prefactor at long term, I guess that it will not be super important because if we have millions of qubits, we don’t need that. But at short-term, especially that we, we can only deal with a few qubits, or a few qudits, I think that will be important. So it could be a nice way to explore another path in order to extract the most from this exponentially hard and big, sorry, anyway space. And at the same time, from a quantum information perspective there is a lot of interesting properties that arise from high dimensional entanglement. And who knows, maybe there is one of these properties is important for quantum computation, and we don’t know that yet. So I will also be interested on exploring this path.
🟢 Steven Thomson (27:44): Okay. So we’ve already discussed a bit about the, the quantum Spain project and some of the large scale goals. Can you tell us a little bit about your role in coordinating this project and what is it you do on a daily basis? And are there any lessons that you’ve learned in managing a project like this?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (28:03): Well managing quantum Spain has been like a big challenge in my career for, I mean, for obvious reasons, because it’s a big project, of course. But on the other side, because I need to face the other part of science, which is not doing science itself, but actually, you know, dealing with a project, managing a group of people also, you know, putting everything into perspective. So to see, you know, what is, what will be the goals of this project, what is the progress of this project? And many bureaucracies, as you can imagine. This is something important to learn because we are funded by by public funds, and it’s really important to explain to everybody what are we doing? What are we doing? Why are we doing this, and what is our progress? So this something that you have to take into account with your coordinating on a project.
(28:51): So in this sense quantum Spain has been a really nice and also challenging path and project. I’m really happy that the government of Spain decided to bid to work with quantum computing, because actually we were funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and not the Ministry of Science. So, the Ministry of Science is developing other many interesting projects in quantum technologies. But the particular one of quantum computation, quantum Spain, it’s funded by this other ministry because they wanted to see this jump from the academia to industry, to startups, to offer this service to everyone that needs that. And it’s really nice that they see the opportunity to do that. And they saw, they have this view of saying, “Okay, now it’s time to do this thing”. And this is, that has been a very exciting. And at the same time I’m coordinating 27 institutions.
(29:44): At the moment we are still 13, but it’s expected that the other 14 will join shortly. And it’s really nice to see, you know, different groups, how they work what are the objectives, what are their infrastructures, because this is a project that goes to the full Spanish super computing network. So you can see all kinds of supercomputing infrastructures in Spain, and it’s really nice that it’s organized in a network manner. So it’s…everybody is in quantum Spain right now, and everybody’s trying to make this work because we understand this as an effort ,as a country effort to put our technology at the front level. And this is very exciting. So my role, let’s say day by day is basically answering a lot of emails and and also, you know, having several meetings to see the progress in this project. But I’m also - that was particularly at the beginning, but now that I have more time that the project is still ongoing after one year, I’m more focused on the research part because my, my role is double, so I…I coordinated, but I’m also doing research. So I’m also, I also have the opportunity to work together with with my group here at BSC in, you know, in quantum algorithms. So something more technical.
🟢 Steven Thomson (30:56): Wow. So yeah, you’re really coordinating a huge number of institutes. And I guess also a huge number of people, presumably also.
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (31:04): Yeah. But to be honest, I’m not doing that alone, of course. So, something that I also learned very quickly is how important is to make a team of managers. So not only a coordinator, you also need a projecting manager, you need a dissemination officer, you need other coordinators of each of the packages of the project, because quantum Spain goes beyond having the quantum computer. So we will acquire the quantum computer, we will operate that, but we are also doing research. For that, there are some people that are coordinating all these research efforts in many projects. Then we are also training a full generation of scientists. So our goal is also to provide material and also training to everybody that wants to learn more about quantum computing. And not only from a physical perspective, but especially from other backgrounds like computer scientist or chemist or any people, any person that is interested in using this technology. So of course, for coordinating all of this, you need a lot of people around you that that will take, you know, some sub-coordination of any of these packages. So that’s, it’s also nice to see especially how everybody’s trying to their best. So you can see there is excitement with these kind of projects in quantum technology because everybody sees that this is the future. This is a kind of revolution or maybe evolution, of computation and everybody wants to put their part in that.
🟢 Steven Thomson (32:37): So I guess on the subject then of putting together very large teams with people from different backgrounds and different expertise and so on, there is one question that I always like to ask every guest on this podcast, and that’s that physics has historically been a field that has been dominated mainly by white cisgender men for a very, very long time. It feels like things are beginning to change, albeit too slowly, but it seems like some change is beginning to happen. So I’d like to ask, during your career, having worked in several different countries, have you seen attitudes towards diversity changing at all, either over the years or between the different countries you’ve worked in? And from your point of view now as someone who’s involved in coordinating a project, do you see that you are establishing a very diverse team of people?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (33:27): So the, all this problems with the lack of diversity in, especially in physics in general, in computer science, also of course in quantum computing, much more. So as you go smaller and a smaller and it fulfills, it becomes more and more complicated. But the problem that I see is we need years to change that, and we need to start as soon as possible, of course, but it will take years to see the effect probably. So sometimes it’s hard to push some policies because you don’t see any direct effect, but you still need to continue with that anyway. And the problem that, for instance, I face is creating a team of people that work in quantum Spain, for instance…of course, I don’t decide everybody that works in quantum Spain, only the ones that that work here at BSC related with this project.
(34:16): But anyway, there are no candidates that are from other diversity backgrounds. So there are very, very few of them, and it’s really hard to find them. But in some cases they exist, in some cases they don’t feel maybe safe in this environment. So I’m not sure about that. And that’s the, that’s the point that we need to understand. And as a woman in science, I can see…so I never have faced any, any problem, at least not obvious, not in an obvious manner by the fact that I’m a woman working in a field dominated by males. But I can see that sometimes it could be hard because I’m going to many meetings. I am the only woman there. And because I’m happy with my job and I’m, I mean, everybody’s very friendly and always treat me with a lot of respect.
(35:04): So I never have any inconvenience with that. But I can see that it, it seems like this feel is aggressive towards diversity because if each time that I go to a meeting, I’m the only one from a different, you know that is not a white man, basically, I can understand that all people that feel more constrained or that feel not so comfortable with that, they withdraw and they say, “Okay, I don’t want to be here because I don’t feel safe. I don’t see that I’m welcome because I’m always the only one”. And it’s hard. But someone…so I think we, the ones that, that will arrive here, we need to stay, even though it could be hard or at least make yhe biggest of our effort, although it’s also sometimes unfair for us, but to stay so everyone, in case someone else enters, they see you and they see there is at least someone different, so they can attract other ones and so on and so forth.
(35:56): But anyway, nothing of that will work if we don’t change our minds from, you know, from previous steps in education. So if physics degrees are still underrepresented, if…not even at university, even before that, if in high school all the girls don’t want to do technology because they feel that they don’t, they are not good enough for that and so on and so on and so forth, it will be really hard to, you know, to arrive to this level and see some diversity. So it’s something that we need to address as a society. And in my case, in in the project that I’m coordinating, the effort that we are doing is of course making a lot of visibility as much as we can of people of different backgrounds from our backgrounds and also personalities and ways of living, et cetera, from our field, just to show that we are humans and we are diverse and we are welcoming anybody that wants to come to our project.
(36:52): And something very simple sometimes that you can do is things like making some code of conduct in our internal chats, for instance, or each time that we organize a congress or workshops, things like that, that are very small and probably, I mean, nothing will happen. So why you will do something like that? It’s just to show that this will be a safe space to everybody that wants to join this effort, now or in the future. So I think these small things are also important in the short term, but definitely the long term we need to address that as a society.
🟢 Steven Thomson (37:24): That’s really encouraging to hear. And I think, as you say, making these small gestures, they cost nothing, right? They’re very simple and easy. And if they communicate to people that, that they are welcome, that everyone is valued, then that seems like, seems like a huge win for very little cost. So why not? Why not at least do that? And then also, as you say, there are many other stages in the, in the career pipeline where, where there are problems. But as you say, if you have a workforce from a bunch of diverse backgrounds, at least making sure that they are happy and comfortable and feel safe and valued enough to continue working in the field, that seems like a very valuable goal.
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (38:08): Exactly. Sometimes it’s not only about the diversity itself of your team, but also just to show that this will be a safe space because if your team is apparently diverse, but then people are not comfortable, then it’s not diverse at all, of course. So that’s also very important.
🟢 Steven Thomson (38:24): Yeah, definitely. Okay, One final question to wrap up with then. If you could go back in time and give yourself just one piece of advice, what would it be?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (38:37): Mm…keep calm. Because I get stressed very easily sometimes, because I want to do everything quickly. Like, yeah, I want to solve things as soon as possible because of course I’m excited to do all these things, but sometimes things take time, especially if you want to do them properly. So it’s better that you stop, take some breath and do whatever you have to do step by step, even if that means that it will take long time because it’s more important to make things properly than make them quickly. So I would say that like, Alba, don’t worry, just take a breath. It will work out. You just need more time to do it. So it’s fine.
🟢 Steven Thomson (39:16): That sounds like a really great piece of advice and a good way to finish this off. Okay. So if our audience would like to learn a little bit more about you, is there anywhere that they could find you, for example, on the internet or on social media, anywhere like that?
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (39:30): Yes. I’m using Twitter quite often. So my handle is @albaclierta. And also you can send me an email anytime you want. I mean, I’m happy to answer all emails and my my email address is in the bsc.es webpage, so you can find me also easily. And of course regarding Quantum Spain Project, we also have a website in English and Spanish. So there is also a contact form for anybody that wants to learn more about this project.
🟢 Steven Thomson (39:59): Okay, perfect. We’ll make sure to leave some links to those on our own website and wherever we distribute this podcast. So thank you very much Dr. Alba Cervera-Lierta for your time here today.
🟣 Alba Cervera-Lierta (40:10): Thank you, Steven. It was a pleasure to be here and I hope that you enjoyed as much as me this podcast.
🟢 Steven Thomson (40:17): Absolutely. It was fantastic talking with you. Thank you also to the Unitary Fund for supporting this podcast. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, please consider liking, sharing and subscribing wherever you like to listen to your podcasts. It really helps us to get our guest’s stories out to as wide an audience as possible. I hope you’ll join us again for our next episode. And until then, this has been insideQuantum. I’ve been Dr. Steven Thomson, and thank you very much for listening. Goodbye!