A quantum phenomenon
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Chicago Quantum Exchange January 25, 2024
First-year doctoral student Bao Bach is already making international waves
When you're a 22-year-old doctoral student studying quantum science and engineering in the year 2023, the future looks full of extraordinary possibilities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you wait until the future arrives to do extraordinary things.
That was Bao Bach’s approach as he flew to Delaware from Vietnam in July for his first year of graduate studies. He felt a little nervous, but also elated, to have found the University of Delaware’s quantum science and engineering graduate program — one of just a handful in the nation offering both master’s and doctorate degrees.
Then, not long after arriving, Bach was back in the air — first to Chicago, where he was on the first-place hackathon team that cracked a mind-numbing, transistor-zapping quantum computing puzzle. Then, a few weeks later, he was off to Germany, where the Ho Chi Minh City native presented his research to a top-tier academic audience at the Munich Quantum Software Forum.
Considering these accomplishments came at a time when Bach could hardly navigate Newark, much less Munich, his jet-setting escapades seem all the more astonishing. The passion and potential that Bach shows are typical traits of students who are drawn to the program, UD professors say. Most are here because they are eager to join an energetic, far-forward-leaning field and know they can get the training for it hardly anywhere else.
In other words, Bach is not so much a standout as a snapshot — typical of the pioneering scholars who see UD as the right place to take on the challenges of realizing and exploiting quantum technologies.
"The challenges Bao faced at the Chicago hackathon line up extremely well with the educational goals of our programs,” said Matthew Doty, professor of materials science and engineering and director of UD’s quantum science and engineering graduate program. ‘’We know that the workforce that will take quantum technologies into the future needs a balance of skills and knowledge that aren’t provided by traditional disciplines. We designed our program to build a shared knowledge base and vocabulary that allows experts from many different disciplines to collaborate effectively to realize new quantum technologies.”
Bach was drawn to that cross-discipline approach soon after he saw a LinkedIn post about the program by one of its professors, Ilya Safro, who is also associate chair for graduate studies and research in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences.
“I had a look at UD’s program and I thought it was pretty cool, so I looked into the faculty and what they were researching and saw professor Safro led the track in quantum algorithms,” said Bach, who studies out of Safro’s lab. “His research is very aligned with my interests.”
Now that he’s back from Europe and the Windy City, Bach has settled in nicely to the routines of developing new algorithms that can better leverage the power of quantum computing.
For now, one of the biggest challenges is that too much of the information processed by the “quantum bits” — qubits — end up being lost, often due to the computer hardware. Safro’s lab is tackling that “decoherence” problem by creating computer codes that mathematically mitigate its influence. Quantum optimization and machine learning are among other research directions explored in his lab.
That was also the challenge of September’s prestigious Big Q Quantum hackathon, organized by the Chicago Quantum Exchange and QuantX. Bach and his team were given a hypothetical quantum problem posed by a real pharmaceutical business: How can the spherical particles be arranged within a hypothetical container in such a way that they take up minimal space, yet their center of mass is near a desired point? Finding the solution took about a day of programming work, a custom-constructed mathematical optimization model and a few gallons of coffee, Bach said.
“The kinds of solutions they came up with are crucial to the biomanufacturing process,” Safro said. “It requires sophisticated analytical and problem-solving abilities.”
Hackathons are extremely helpful in bridging the gap between theory and practical application, Safro said. They are what often help clear the way to innovative solutions that could someday — revolutionize scientific fields from material science to cybersecurity, he added.
“There is optimism, but it is cautious due to ongoing mathematical, physical and engineering challenges, like making quantum systems larger and more reliable,” Safro said. “Bao’s involvement in such a prestigious and competitive hackathon demonstrates his expertise and forward-thinking approach in the rapidly evolving domain of quantum computing."
It’s that hypothetical world that Bach now finds himself happily immersed in.
“Because it’s theoretical, you can do everything that you like,” he said. “You have the potential to think of the unimaginable things that nobody has ever thought about.”
For more information on the University of Delaware’s quantum science and engineering graduate program, visit udel.edu/grad/quantum.