Almanakly honored with P.D. Soros Fellowship For New Americans

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PhD candidate Aziza Almanakly stands in front of MIT’s Great Dome.

EECS PhD candidate Aziza Almanakly recently received news of an exciting honor: together with nine other MIT students, she was named one of the 2021 recipients of the P.D. Soros Fellowships for New Americans. We sat down with Almanakly to learn more about her research into quantum computing, her deep family connections to science, and how the immigrant experience has shaped her perspective on American education.

Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with us! Let’s get started with a bit of background: how did you first become interested in quantum computing?

I was a sophomore in college, and I read an article about quantum computing in the Wall Street Journal. I thought it was super cool and wanted to know more about how the technology actually worked, and it seemed like the only way to learn more about it was to work in a research laboratory. My college, Cooper Union, was a teaching institution and did not have the facilities for that kind of research. My career center advisor, Jolie Woodson, said, “You seem like you would enjoy graduate school; why don’t you check out summer research programs?”

I applied to a couple programs involving quantum computing with no expectations, let alone, experience, and I got into an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) at Princeton, which was my big break. It changed my life. Professor Stephen Lyon took me into his lab and launched my career into quantum computing. We worked with electrons on a thin superfluid helium film with the goal of eventually creating a spin qubit, which we could use to store the fundamental unit of quantum information. From there on, I was hooked—I just thought this research was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to learn more. Prof. Lyon helped me conduct more research in New York City by introducing me to his friends at neighboring institutions. I worked in a few different labs on different kinds of qubits; worked in a photonics lab at CCNY for a year; spent a summer at CalTech and then another year at NYU before coming here.

What application of quantum computing is the most exciting to you—in other words, what problem do you think it has the most potential to solve?

I don’t think quantum computers are going to replace the studied, optimized computers we are using right now; I think quantum computers are going to solve very specialized problems that even the world’s biggest traditional supercomputers don’t have the computing power to solve. I think quantum computing is going to be used by scientists in different fields who have enormous amounts of data in their problems. One such problem in medicine involves simulating protein dynamics, so you can see exactly how the body reacts to different drugs. Another potential application is in data encryption. A lot of our modern security schemes rely on the fact that you can’t factor an infinitely large number in a reasonable amount of time, but a quantum computer has the potential to do that, so people are worried that quantum computing could break our schemes. So people are working on quantum cryptography, where, instead of relying on the fact that a certain computation is too hard to crack, the security scheme relies on the laws of quantum mechanics.

In Will Oliver’s lab, I work every day on the hardware—how can we store, manipulate, and communicate quantum information? I work on superconducting qubits, a field I like because it’s kind of in between physics and electrical engineering. (I don’t think the distinction matters.) I really enjoy working with electronics, so that’s why I chose this kind of quantum computing.

Your family emigrated from Syria in the early 1990s in pursuit of academic opportunity. Can you tell us a little about how you view or conceptualize their story—is it one of loss, one of gain, one of both?

My story aligns closely with my dad’s. He finished his civil engineering degree at the University of Damascus and came to America at my age for a master’s program at Manhattan College. He had to leave because he felt that there was just no future for him in Syria, given the declining state of affairs. It’s a strained dynamic where a minority sect is ruling the oppressive government, and where my dad said it never really felt like a home because he was always concerned for his safety and the safety of his family. Your friend could turn out to be a spy and rat you out to the government; it was so uncertain. They really needed civil engineers in Syria, and so the graduates of his university were not allowed to leave the country unless they were in the top ten members of their graduating class, and then they are only allowed to leave to complete graduate programs with the expectation that they’ll return to Syria. Well, my dad was number six in his class, and he left.

He was big into academics and wanted to continue; he started a PhD at Columbia University, but his funding was pulled when the Cold War ended, and he needed a job. He worked with several civil engineering firms on some large and complex buildings before pivoting into software engineering, and now he’s so interested in what I’m researching. I’m doing what he really wishes he could have done at my age. It’s boundary pushing, and we both love to learn – he loves school as much as I do. We think alike in a lot of ways, especially the way we approach technical problems. When you’re given a problem, are you going to study everything about it first? No—you’re going to try a couple things, they don’t work, go back and learn more.

My mom was born in Syria and moved to France as a child; her father was also an academic who’d completed a PhD in agriculture at the University of Georgia, served as the Dean of the University of Aleppo, then went to work for UNESCO in Paris. (He’d originally wanted to be a doctor, but had found that impossible given his family circumstances in Syria.) My mom grew up and studied pharmacy, then came to America with her siblings when she was my age and worked in a pharmaceutical research lab. She’s now a rock star at Bayer Healthcare, working in pharmaceutical advertising.

So, both my parents, and my grandfather, came from a country that only served as an inhibitor, and really made it. Because of what they did, all the stars aligned for me: my whole life I could just sit, study, and focus on my work.

You’ve spoken before about the importance of mentorship, particularly to new Americans and women in STEM. Who do you count among your mentors, and can you give a couple of examples of what you consider particularly good mentoring?

A really immediate example I can give is Bharath Kannan, a 5th year PhD student in my lab whom Will Oliver introduced me to when I told him that mentorship was how I learned best. Bharath has really been showing me the way around the lab, showing me the shortcuts; he’ll let me struggle a little, but not for too long, and we’ve become very close friends. I’m constantly impressed by him: he helps everyone in the lab and is so generous with his time. He’s said that he wants me to have a good PhD experience—and I feel so fortunate to be trained by this successful scientist who cares about me and my career. The time we spent together is a very direct form of mentorship, but there are many other kinds of mentorship.

Cooper was a very small, tight-knit community where I could just march into my professors’ offices and demand help. I had a professor there, Prof. Neveen Shlayan, who was also an Arab American woman and we connected at that level; we regularly had tea-time together. It was inspiring to see an electrical engineer whom I could relate to like that.

I love to teach; I am a recitation instructor for an online “Introduction to Quantum Computing” class for high school students and I feel like I’m really getting through to them. I also have a very busy UROP student now—I have to be careful, or I’ll sign up for too many things! But yes, I am trying to pay forward the mentorship I’ve been so lucky to receive. If people believe in you early on, when you don’t believe in yourself yet, it’s really pushes you to grow. There are a lot of environmental barriers and factors that could discourage you in such challenging fields, so you rely on mentors for that support.

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