Adi Sheward-Himpson had a passion for science and technology from a young age and despite not pursuing academic qualifications in science or mathematics, has always worked in technology related roles. Adi has held a number of positions in the technology sector, including one as a futurologist and another in communications at the University of Oxford’s e-Research Centre, before taking up his current role as Communications Manager for the Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub, led by the University of Oxford. We caught up with Adi to find out more about his journey into quantum, the skills and experience he thinks are key for a role in communications in quantum and his hopes for the future.
Can you tell us a little more about your background and your journey to working in the field of quantum?
After I graduated from university, having studied Business and Media Production, I ran my own business for five years creating corporate videos. I then went to work for the UK’s first online book, music and video store. At that point, the internet was really new and was something that people didn’t really know about, so it was quite a cutting-edge place to work at the time.
Following this, due to my natural affinity for technology, I became a futurologist where my role was to research which technologies were likely to dominate, what they would be doing and what consumers would be looking for, from six months to 20 years into the future! I had always loved technology and that was a great opportunity for me to get heavily involved and see exciting new things. For example, in 2000 I saw a phone which was essentially very similar to an iPhone, however, iPhones weren’t released for another 7 years – so I was seeing things years before similar products were coming out, which was very cool.
I then worked for Amazon for a while, before moving to work at the University of Oxford. I worked in the Oxford e-Research Centre for 11 years, which was used high-powered supercomputers to do innovative research, both in the hard sciences and beyond. Following that, I worked as Head of Operations for a company running academic summer schools before joining the Quantum Computing and Simulation (QCS) Hub, based at the University of Oxford.
I joined the QCS Hub because it was the next logical step for me. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve tried to consider what the next big technology area would be and head for that; for example, I started working with the Internet not for financial or career reasons but because it was new, cool and exciting for me. The same could be said with the work of e-Research Centre. Quantum computing is going to change the world – just like classical computers and mobile phones have – and I wanted to be a part of that from the outset. Throughout my entire career, technology has always been my fixed point – however, rather than being a technologist or scientist, I have been an explorer and a communicator, working alongside the people developing new technologies.
What transferable skills do you think you have gained throughout your career and what do you think are the most important skills for a career in communications in quantum?
I would say the most important transferable skill is being able to communicate and make links between technologists and non-technologists, and in particular between people who are top of their field and the general public or people in business. Interpersonal skills are crucial so you can interact with people on a human level. You can send as many emails as you like but if you’re not able to interact with people personally, you won’t get the most back from them in terms of their stories and enthusiasm for their work.
You must also not mind asking questions that you worry might make you look stupid! The academics we work with lead the world in their fields, so there’s no way I’m going to be able to understand what they’re doing all of the time. So you have to be brave and ask those ‘stupid’ questions, because you’re trying to translate what they do, to make it more understandable to a wider audience. They are incredibly enthusiastic about their work and so never mind answering questions, no matter how basic they might seem.
What experiences do you think are valuable for someone hoping to work in communications in the field of quantum?
I think a good knowledge of, and passion for, science is most important. You don’t have to be a scientist though. I have always been a science geek, but my maths wasn’t good enough for me to excel in sciences at A Level. I still have that passion though, so have pursued a career in the field anyway. In terms of quantum in particular, it’s about being able to understand and communicate how the technologies sit in the real world, because at the end of the day that’s where all these amazing technologies are heading. Whether that’s by making the environment better, designing new materials, better understanding how the world works, or helping improve people’s health, communicating these applications is really important.
What would a typical day at work be for you?
There is no typical day. There are things that flow throughout every day, such as core communications duties including press releases, gathering news items, arranging events, and so on, but there are also different projects that run alongside those. I probably spend about half of my week doing business-as-usual communications work and then the other half on more focused projects, for example designing or building a website, planning an outreach activity, designing materials for a conference or an event, and so on.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like the variety; I wouldn’t like to be doing a job where essentially, you do the same thing every day. I like the fact that while there are some things that are predictable in my role, I enjoy being able to work on all sorts of different projects too. Working with Photoshop and designing things is my happy place, so I quite enjoy the creative side of the role as well! I like that part of communications is about being creative and coming up with different ways of doing things – for example, new ways to run an event or present information.
Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come?
I am very excited about the potential for quantum computers and quantum simulators to design new materials and potentially new drugs. I think the possibility of being able to use a technology that is so adept at letting you see how things happen at the atomic and quantum level is amazing. For example, it could enable us to have personalized medication, or super strong lightweight materials. What’s really exciting to me is while there are all these possibilities, we don’t yet know which are the ones that are going to make the biggest difference.
When I first started working with the internet, people could not imagine where it would take us. I think the same will be the case for quantum computers and like we now do with the internet, we’ll take them, and what they enable, completely for granted. I’m excited to be involved in something like this from the off. I have a three-year-old and the world he grows up in will have quantum technologies shaping his life, so knowing I was there at the beginning of that will be amazing. I’m also very excited about the way quantum technologies will allow the human race to extend its understanding of all sort of things, ranging from mysteries of the universe to the mysteries of ourselves.
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope that quantum technologies will actually help us turn around some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past. I hope that they will bring us into a cleaner, more energy efficient world. I also hope that quantum computing will help us to get rid of some of the diseases that currently plague us, and help us to develop new drugs as new diseases emerge. For example, I would hope that if another pandemic hits 20 years into the future, we’ll be able to use quantum computing to reduce the time that we’re all stuck indoors isolating, by shortening the time it takes us to develop vaccines etc.
What would you say to young people who are considering pursuing a career in STEM, particularly in a role like yours?
I would say don’t worry if you don’t think you could physically do the technical work yourself – as long as you have a passion for it, there are lots of jobs that enable you to be involved, without needing to be hands on in the lab. If you’ve got enthusiasm about the technologies and the potential opportunities that they can provide, you can be involved and help to take that science out into the wider world. I always think about when John F. Kennedy paid a visit to NASA and met a man sweeping a hangar. He asked the man what he did and he said that he was helping put a man on the moon. And that’s absolutely what he was doing. People can still contribute massively to a field, without doing the scientific work, but by supporting it. There are many roles and opportunities to do that in quantum, no matter what your background is.