At heart Michelle Simmons is a builder and a maker. Her raw materials differ from those of more traditional trades and crafts. They are not bricks or wood, metals or glass. They are the fundamental building blocks of nature itself – atoms.
The UNSW professor has always loved solving the most difficult of problems.
Simmons heads a world-leading research team at the forefront of quantum computing. They have already fabricated atomic-scale devices in silicon and germanium using a scanning tunneling microscope – and are the only people in the world to have done so.
It is all part of the ultimate goal to build a prototype quantum computer.[i]
“We have opened up a new field. We are making devices literally atom by atom,” says Simmons, a Laureate Fellow and a Scientia Professor of Physics and Director of UNSW’s Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T).
She established and is also a director of the board of Australia’s first quantum computing company, Silicon Quantum Computing, launched to advance development and commercialisation of the centre’s silicon quantum computing efforts.
‘I am incredibly proud to be an Australian’
Simmons was named the 2018 Australian Of the Year for her leadership and pioneering research in quantum computing.
“I chose to be an Australian citizen and I am incredibly proud to be Australian. I feel like I’ve won a prize by living here in the first place … it makes me feel even more that I want to give back,” says Simmons, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.
Other honours and awards include two Federation Fellowships, the Australian Academy of Science’s Thomas Ranken Lyle and Pawsey Medals, the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Science, the Foresight Institute Feynman Experimental Prize for her work in “the new field of atomic-electronics, which she created” and the George R Stibitz Computer and Communications Pioneer Award for “pioneering advances in quantum computing” from the American Computer Museum.
These reflect a lifetime commitment to hard work and productivity, witnessed by the more than 400 papers she has published in refereed journals.
“It’s all very well to have fun in the lab, but ultimately it’s got to be something worthwhile – and the only way to know that is to continuously write it up and challenge yourself and your thinking,” she says.
“Research papers, reports and project proposals and all that is critical to what we do.”
Can nature be controlled at the quantum level?
The fundamental question at the heart of quantum computing is, she says: can nature be controlled at the quantum level?
“If you can control it you should be able access the exponential speed-up in computational power from using quantum states, and the potential of that is huge.
“The question is – will nature let us understand her and let us control her well enough to build such a device? My sense is that the more we learn, the better the prospects and the more that good things are going to come.”
She says that as a scientist “you have an instinct about whether something is going to work or not”.
“We are pushing the limits of all the technologies that exist in this space, the technology of fabrication; the technology of measurement. But I have to be patient because things don’t always go as fast as I’d like.
“I am however very optimistic.”
In the beginning … a game of chess
Her extraordinary abilities, and a passion for doing “the hard things”, revealed themselves at an early age when she figured out how to play chess simply by watching her father and brother play.
One day at home in the London suburb of Lee she challenged her father to a game. After some headshaking and derisive laughter he reluctantly agreed to take on the upstart novice.
“It really was a pivotal moment because my dad was someone I got on incredibly well with, still do,” she says.
“But the fact he didn’t expect me to be able to do something was really quite a surprise for me. He realised afterwards he had misjudged things and has since pushed me to do whatever I love.
“He has been very supportive. Doing the hard things is something that’s come from him really.”
‘They gave us text books and left us on our own.’
Along with her brother she attended the local comprehensive school.
“It was very mixed ability and quite rough. But I didn’t know any better and I was quite happy,” she says.
When it came time to do her A levels [the English equivalent of the HSC] the school decided to trial an independent learning scheme.
“They gave us text books and left us on our own. The view was that you didn’t need the teachers and – no joke – they would go off to the staff room and leave us alone.
“Most of my friends thought this was terrific and would go off and play cards in the common room. I went to the school labs because I was doing all the science subjects – there was a technician there for safety reasons – but I remember thinking ‘gosh this is great I’ve got a whole lab to myself’.
“I had a phenomenal time in that process of teaching myself.”
The scheme was, however, a disaster – “Pretty much the whole year failed, but I was lucky enough to scrape through.”
The university years and the Cavendish Laboratory
Simmons attended Durham University in England’s northeast, graduating with a PhD in physics and chemistry in 1992.
On arriving at university she experienced a culture shock: she was from an ordinary London comprehensive, but many other students had attended “very well-to-do schools”.
“I went to see my mentor and I said – ‘I think they have let me in by mistake. I want to tell you about it now so you don’t realise later on and then throw me out’.
“He thought it was the funniest thing. He said ‘I came from a comprehensive too and we do let comprehensive students in here Michelle. There’s nothing wrong with you’.”
After graduating from Durham she took a role as a research fellow in quantum electronics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, working with Professor Sir Michael Pepper in GaAs-based quantum electronics.
“I was very keen to make and to understand fundamentally what made a quantum device work or not work,” she says. “I wanted to build something that could prove to be useful.”
‘Why did you come here?’
It was in pursuit of this goal that in 1999, after considering opportunities in Britain and the US, she accepted a QEII Fellowship to come Australia as a founding member of UNSW’s Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computer Technology.
Colleagues in the UK were puzzled by her decision to move to Australia – as were some Australians, who asked: ‘why did you come here?’
“Australia offered the freedom of independent fellowships and the ability to work on large-scale projects with other academics from across the country,” she says.
“When I arrived I was lucky enough to go on a national tour, giving lectures in different states, and as I went across the country I thought ‘wow, there’s some phenomenal things going on here’.”
She is an enthusiastic advocate for Australian higher education and research.
“Throughout the time I have been here, the Australian Research Council has created fellowships, centres of excellence and linkage grants, and I have been an enormous benefactor of those.
“I am incredibly proud to be in a country that has created new technologies that have results from all of those schemes. In many areas Australia leads the world.”
The value of teamwork
She says that when visiting the US she and her team would present the results of their quantum computing research.
“We were competing against the best groups in the US but we actually had a lot more output, were a lot more focused, and we were producing results of much more impact because we were a team.
“Australia has something unique in our centres of excellence, and that is the ability to get coordinated research nationally. This put us in an outstanding position compared to the US, which is now trying to replicate the centres of excellence model.
“They haven’t had as much success because they are so used to competing against each other.”
Her message to fellow Australians “is to recognise the positives of what they have because, actually, we are doing pretty well”.
“We have a technology edge where there’s an opportunity for us to lead in lots of different fields. If anything this year I hope to encourage people to go for it.”
‘Girls are just as good at physics and maths as boys are’
Simmons was the subject of much media attention following an Australia Day speech in January last year in which she said she had been “horrified” to discover after arriving in Australia that the HSC physics curriculum had been “feminised” to make it more appealing to girls.
Curricula designers, she said, had substituted rigorous mathematical formulae with essays, adding – “when we reduce the quality of education that anyone receives, we reduce the expectations we have of them … we must set the bar high and tell them we expect them to jump over it.”
Simmons tells me she understands the changes were an honest attempt “to do the right thing” because “there was a perception that girls don’t like maths or that puts them off”.
However, she adds, “from my experience girls are just as good at physics and maths as boys are – and actually the whole heart of physics is maths, so you can’t rip that out”.
“I genuinely felt that it wasn’t the right way to go and that it was having a long term detrimental effect.”
She adds that “a representative from the NSW curricula board has since visited me and shown me the changes they were putting in place”.
“They were quite open and positive about my comments and said they too felt it was time to change, and had already been actively thinking about that.”
Simmons says there has been a general trend across the world “to make subjects more appealing by taking the rigour out them”.
“But young people in the meantime are getting online, learning information a lot faster than they used to, and are able to do things on computers and IT that we don’t even comprehend. So we really do have to recognise that they are hungry for hard things, they are hungry for challenges.”
Challenges facing young females in studying STEM
Simmons says there are cultural challenges facing young females in studying STEM. Many young people, particularly girls, tend to drop out after thinking about which careers to pursue.
“One of the challenges for anyone wanting to be a physicist or mathematician is that it is not obvious what the vocational job is at the end of it – and that is one of the things that they worry about,” she says.
“In reality the stats show that if you have a maths, physics or engineering degree your chances of being employed are much higher, and your salary is much higher. That sort of message doesn’t get out there.”
There are different challenges for women as they go forward in a research career, she says, “figuring out how you are going to manage motherhood and what kinds of systems are in place to support that”.
“I think every country, the US and the UK, are looking at how to deal with that.”
One of the key issues, however, is “breaking down the barriers of what women think are possible,” she says – “to realise that taking on the hard subjects opens your horizons and increases your possibilities in life and having the confidence to go for it”.
“That’s more of a cultural change for me than a system change”.