How I got started in the world of Quantum Computing and my experiences so far as a Qiskit Advocate!

The Early Days

Towards the end of my time in school, I really struggled to find how to overlap my two core interests – Physics and Computer Science. I was of the mindset that I had to pick one or the other, and had to abandon one of them after leaving school.

Around November 2016, both my Physics class and my CompSci class were invited to the John Bell lecture at Queen’s University Belfast. The theme of the event was Quantum Computing, led by D-Wave systems and Prof Ronald Hanson from Delft University, discussing the legacy of John Bell and the effect Quantum Computing will have on society in the future. This was the first time I had ever heard of the field and it was music to my ears that I had found the opportunity to pursue both of my largest interests together.

It was around this time that I had submitted my choices for University to UCAS, and I had received offers to study AI at University of Liverpool and Edinburgh. I started to panic. I had picked two courses completely outside of this new field I had just discovered. I frantically phoned UCAS and managed to change to studying Physics at Queen’s University Belfast.


Entering University

I started pursuing the field of Machine Learning for the next few years – as opportunities had presented themselves that I couldn’t pass up – and if I’m honest I started to lose sight of the original reason I pursued education in Physics.

Around the end of my second year of Physics and beginning my year at Axial3D, I by-chance came across Qiskit on twitter. I already had a fair amount of experience of Python since GCSE CompSci, so I got stuck in right away.

It was crazy how much had changed since November 2016. What originally felt so far away and impossible for me to get involved in, I now was able to just learn a bit of python code and actually execute it on real quantum computers from my own living room.


Starting the Qiskit Journey

Since I started practising with Qiskit, I’ve became a Qiskit Advocate for IBM Quantum and became a part of their global community. I would recommend for anyone to become a part of the team.

Before I discovered Qiskit, I was pretty much exploring this very dense topic on my own. It was honestly really intimidating and I felt like I would abandon the topic like 99% of my side projects over the years (classic Mark committing to too much). Upon discovering this community, the support and opportunities presented to me to be able to learn from worldwide experts has been invaluable.

The Qiskit Advocate Programme was advertised for the first time – and sadly the application deadline was literally the day I had discovered Qiskit. Thankfully the team let me know there would be a second round of applications that I was hand-picked for, so from that day I worked hard to be accepted in the next round.

With the team at AI NI, I organised the first ever community-led Quantum Computing event in Northern Ireland’s history. We had two guest speakers – Professor Mauro Paternostro from the Queens University Belfast Quantum Technology team, and Dr Jakub Maracek from IBM Research. It was such a huge weight lifted off my shoulders when I saw the event run so well and the talks were so interesting! I’m honestly very proud of the event and it was really humbling seeing so many people discover Quantum Computing for the first time because of AI NI.

Around this time too, I had also applied to become a part of the IBM Quantum internship programme. Sadly I wasn’t successful, but I think a huge part of developing your career is learning how to deal with rejection and making the most of it. Luckily though, I didn’t have much time to mourn not getting the internship! I found out I got accepted as a Qiskit Advocate! I’ve met so many really lovely people and I really can’t wait for events to start up again where I can see them all.

Every month the group has demos of what a few advocates have been working on. Currently I have been exploring how to use Qiskit for Image Processing (specifically medical images, in line with my work at Axial3D). It’s probably going to be another few months before I’ll be able to present any results on that though!


Reflections on a year out from University

On my year out from University, my main focus was that I want to be able to succeed as much as possible in final year. If I’m honest, I had a very inconvenient barrage of personal issues in the weeks of my second year Physics exams. Therefore, I completely tanked them! I’m sitting on a mid-50s 2:2 average and honestly, it was really tough to deal with at the time. Now, I’m seeing it as my chance to really embrace learning as much as possible before I finish my degree.

I took the attitude that I needed to hit the ground running with final year and I have had a year to prepare. I’ve learned so much in my time at Axial3D about research skills and time management, but honestly the Qiskit Community has really ignited a fire under my ass to study, and study hard. I really look up to all of my teammates and see how hard all of them have worked to get where they are today, and I want to be right there with them.

I feel so much more ready to tackle my Quantum Mechanics module in final year, and I’ve already started studying for it because I honestly really enjoy it, which I never realised as much when I was studying in first and second year!


Recommended Resources

I would recommend starting with the Qiskit Youtube Channel and the Qiskit Textbook. Also, Quantum Computation and Quantum Information by Isaac Chueng and Michael Nielsen has some really great content. Also – if you’re thinking of a University course, a physics degree is probably the best idea. There are also some Quantum Computing/Engineering masters in universities such as Bristol and UCL. There is also Pyquil, Cirq, Tensorflow Quantum, Ocean if you’re looking other frameworks to look with, but if I’m honest I’ve found Qiskit the easiest to grasp and also it has the most supportive community (in my opinion).


Conclusion

If you’re interested in diving in to Quantum Computing, or perhaps just testing the water temperature for a bit, give me a shout! It would make me really happy to introduce someone to the topic. I hope you found this post interesting!

Thank you to everyone on the Qiskit team, I’ve really had a blast so far. I can’t wait to work on some projects with you all!

Mark Cunningham

(P.S – I’m interesting in pursuing a PhD in Quantum Computing. If you are someone looking to supervise a student after Summer 2021, please contact me at mcunningham0410@gmail.com! I’d also really appreciate if you passed my name on to anyone else you know interested in supervising a PhD student in the field. Thank you!)

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