Ben McDonough | Quantum Researcher and Bridge-Builder

IBM Quantum Blog
Monday, April 24, 2023

Ben McDonough spoke to IBM as a member of Quantum Coalition, a loose syndicate of university quantum computing clubs working to build a global community of undergraduate quantum researchers.

He is also doing fundamental research in quantum computing.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

IBM Quantum: What got you interested in quantum computing?

Ben McDonough: When I got to college, I’d been interested in physics for a long time. But I thought I was going to be doing high-energy physics. Then, I ran into Professor Steven Girvin at Yale, who’s had an amazing impact on quantum information science. I thought his error correction work was interesting, so I reached out to him, and he was super receptive. I started working on a project in his lab over the summer.

As part of that, I took my first class on quantum information. What really got me was: this area was super intersectional. I could experience math, physics, and computer science all in the same place. And quantum information was this uniquely distilled way to experience quantum mechanics.

What research have you been working on?

Freshman year, I worked on a project simulating error-correcting protocols for quantum computers. A lot of error correction approaches involve interrupting quantum operations to take measurements before feeding them forward. I was designing a way to simulate those operations to find the optimal points for interrupting.

Sophomore year, I was doing an internship with Professor Peter Orth at the Fermilab Center for Quantum Material Science. The goal of this project was to develop a new method for quantum error mitigation, a procedure that allows you to improve the accuracy of measurements made on a quantum processor. First, you need to characterize the noise on the processor. Then if you can understand the noise you can mitigate it in your measurements, because you know how the noise is going to bias your measurements. I was fortunate to have the chance to present this work at the IEEE SC22 conference last fall.

Now, I’m primarily interested in continuous variable quantum computing, which is an approach to improving the ability of quantum computers to store information by going beyond the limitations of binary qubits. The goal is to build a device capable of storing and processing quantum information for longer algorithms.

Tell us how you became involved in The Quantum Coalition.

When I was a freshman at the beginning of the pandemic, I helped organize a virtual event called QC Hack, which was a hackathon originally of Yale and Stanford students.

It was an opportunity for students from different schools interested in quantum to get together. And we noticed this need: There are a lot of undergraduates who are very passionate about quantum computing from many different fields like chemistry, computer science, and math. But there weren’t many quantum computing clubs.

This year, I became co-president of the Yale Undergraduate Quantum Computing Club. In conversations with club leaders from other schools, we realized that a lot of us had the same experience. Many of our clubs were too small or didn’t have the resources to hold the kind of events we wanted. In order to do something on a larger scale we had to work together. That’s where the Quantum Coalition came from. We wanted to create an organization so that quantum computing clubs for undergraduates at different universities could coordinate, share resources, and do more than we could do on our own.

There’s no leader. It arose from meetings between leaders in the quantum clubs at their own institutions and know their own needs, and who are passionate about organizing. Now the Coalition includes clubs from all over the world. It’s decentralized, so each club is run locally. But we come together to discuss the needs we share and pool resources. 

Currently, we’re planning a mock research conference called the Symposium on Quantum Undergraduate Inquiry and Discovery (SQUID), targeted to undergraduates only, in June 2023. We’re expecting roughly 18 presentations and 120 participants at our first SQUID,

What’s next for you?

I have an internship this summer at a quantum computing company in Boston, and then my ambition is to apply to grad school to continue pursuing my interests in physics and quantum information science.

- IBM Quantum Blog