For this blog, we interviewed Mia Stamatova and Hyunjo Kim, co-founders of Qsium, a student-led initiative that aims to democratise education in quantum computing – one mind at a time. Mia has just completed her A-level exams (physics, maths, further maths and chemistry) and will be studying Physics in Oxford this coming academic year. She has a particular interest in theoretical quantum computation and the potential impact of quantum computing on fundamental physics. Hyunjo will be starting his final school year in September, studying maths, further maths, physics, and history. He also plans to study physics at University level, possibly combined with philosophy. Hyunjo is really interested in quantum computing and quantum mechanics, an interest borne through his readings around the intersection between physics and philosophy.
You both have a great interest in quantum mechanics, and all things quantum. How was this generated, if not at school? Was it through extracurricular activities? Were you attending science festivals or doing your own reading? Would you like to tell me a bit more about it, please?
HK: So I have two answers for this. The first answer would be through YouTube. I watch a lot of science videos on YouTube and started by watching videos on how quantum computers work and crash course videos on quantum physics. At the time I was in middle school and those videos sparked my interest so I went on to read books. The second answer would be the Oxford Quantum Club, which Mia was also a part of. It’s run by Professor Alexander Lvovsky at the University of Oxford. It involves taking a short entrance exam, but then you go into the online programme and through assignments, which you complete at your own time, you get to learn undergraduate-level linear algebra and some basic quantum mechanics to get you started. I was also part of a different programme, Qubit by Qubit supported by IBM Quantum for high-school students and that got me interested in computing as well. So for me, it’s been a mixture of programmes, YouTube videos and books that generated my interest.
MS: Yeah, I’d have to agree. I think the A-level course at school is quite limited in terms of quantum mechanics. It covers the photoelectric effect and nothing else. The main things that initially got me interested in quantum mechanics were popular science books. But if you want a slightly more advanced understanding, you need to be involved in a slightly more mathematical programme. I think the Oxford Quantum Club definitely did that as it made me understand more about quantum mechanics at some depth rather than surface-level description. It is an online programme so it runs throughout the year and it’s supplementary to school work. Students do it during the evenings whereby they get assigned problem sheets. And, in parallel, there are tutorials to tackle some of the problems and the material. I think the entry test is often a barrier to learning quantum mechanics. In that sense, I think you definitely need a mathematical background to be able to access the material so through the Qsium initiative, we are trying to make quantum more accessible to students who don’t necessarily have that mathematical background.
GM: You have both helped to found Qsium, alongside another friend of yours, Ryan Lin. Can you tell us a bit more about it? And what was it that you were hoping to achieve through it?
HK: So Mia, Ryan and I have been through the Oxford Quantum Club and we felt that although it was a really interesting programme, there were a lot of mathematical jargon and difficult, technical vocabulary used in quantum mechanics. So we felt that we could simplify it much more and make learning about quantum computing a bit more accessible through direct experience with a bit of linear algebra and quantum mechanics. We wanted to remove the words that felt unnecessarily confusing for some students who might have had different experience with mathematics. We run weekly free sessions for our students. They are completely virtual and we have a range of students attending (30-50 at a time) of variable mathematical ability just to get the mathematical prerequisites right, so that they can go on to understand the basics of quantum computing. We also offer a programme of guest lectures, for example we recently had Professor Terry Rudolph (Schrödinger’s grandson & Co-founder of PsiQuantum), and we have an advisory board helping us with the delivery of sessions and planning of events. The maths prerequisites online talks are delivered by us – myself, Mia, Ryan and another friend of ours, Zaahir Ali, who’s our Head or STEM Research.
MS: Yes, the aims of Qsium are to make quantum computing and quantum mechanics as accessible as possible to people who are interested and enthusiastic to learn more about it. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right resources and even YouTube videos can be quite sporadic, not constituting a full curriculum. So Qsium is aiming to present students with an opportunity to have a systematic overview of the material, but without necessarily imposing all of the math in one go.
HK: We don’t aim to help our students master quantum computing. Rather we aim for quantum literacy so that students can differentiate between what is important information about an emerging technology and what is hype.
GM: What is the target age group? And do you receive any funding for this effort? Clearly you are both students, are you doing this in your free time?
MS: Our age groups range from 16 to 18 year olds, though, of course, younger students are welcome to join. There is no restriction, but the material is best suited for people who have already made their GCSE choices and want to study physics or maths or computer science. In terms of funding, we don’t have any, we are doing this in our own time, but hopefully as we grow as an organisation, we will be able to receive some support so that we can be more sustainable in the long term.
GM: So your motto is “democratizing quantum education one mind at a time”. What do you mean by that? Do you think incorporating something like quantum mechanics in the school curriculum would be useful? And if so, why?
MS: I think you need basic understanding of quantum mechanics in a physics degree. All physicists will come across it at some point during their studies, so it’s definitely an important thing to learn, especially as quantum computing and other quantum technologies do become more prevalent in society in the next 10, 20, or 30 years. Obviously, it’s anyone’s guess as to when exactly but I think there will eventually come a time when we do use quantum computing and some algorithms become commonplace. So I think students in high school at least should have some sort of understanding, even if it’s just at the basic level, maybe the differences between classical and quantum computing or potentially the effects of quantum computing on society. I think that will be a very useful thing. I view this as a similar situation to when classical computers were firstly being introduced. If schools are able to incorporate this into the curriculum in some way, obviously not in its full mathematical rigor, that would be very useful and important.
HK: I agree. Making quantum information science a bit more integrated in the A-level curriculum would be important in the near future. I think there is definitely room for maybe even an optional module to introduce the concepts.
GM: Have you personally experienced any barriers in your uptake of STEM subjects at school and beyond?
MS: Personally, not really. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had teachers who are very encouraging and always very supportive. I do have to say that I am one of only two female students in my maths class. So maybe there is a gender imbalance in the sciences and in maths (more so in further math). I’m not saying that’s necessarily a problem, because I don’t think anyone should be forced into a subject they’re not interested in. As long as there’s the environment for people to be allowed to study what interests them, then it’s fine. There shouldn’t necessarily be a 50/50 split all of the time. At university the gender split is still 80/20. So I think if girls are more encouraged into physics that might make them more willing to study it further at university. But personally, from my experience I’ve never really felt discouraged or disadvantaged in that sense.
HK: I completely agree with what Mia has said. And with Qsium we want to try and make sure that we’re encouraging and supporting women in STEM. We want to make sure that we democratize access to quantum computing. But I agree, we don’t want to force anyone into it. Personally, I’ve been quite lucky to have been surrounded by really amazing teachers as well, and fortunate to be in a school that can provide really good opportunities. My interest used to lie in humanities – history and politics – so I arrived at quantum through self-discovery. So yes, some people find STEM hard, but equally others find the humanities inaccessible; ultimately it is about having access to the right resources.
GM: I want to understand a bit more about your specific roles within Qsium, what duties are associated with them on a day-to-day basis. As well as what transferable skills you think you have gained through your involvement in Qsium?
HK: So I currently serve Qsium as the CEO – taking on a more managerial and logistical role. I also do a lot of lecturing, putting together STEM resources, and helping out with making sure the curriculum is accessible. A lot of the work I do beyond that is making sure that we are establishing partnerships in the quantum industry and liaising with researchers in our advisory board. In terms of skills, the most important is collaboration, working effectively in a team environment.
MS: As a co-founder, I’ve also recently taken the role of COO. Additionally, I do some of the lecturing, so I run some of the tutorial groups and write some of the lecture materials as well. Also recently I’ve started applying for grants. And more generally I reach out to potential guest speakers and people who could sit on our advisory board. So sometimes it’s more of a teaching role sometimes outreach and general admin. But I think as an organisation, when it’s a smaller setting, everyone takes a hands-on-deck approach. So you know, the role isn’t necessarily fixed, but depends on what needs to be done during that week. And it’s nice that we’re a slightly smaller organization so that everyone can take a role to help out. And the roles lead to tons of transferable skills, I’d say. Definitely collaboration, as Hyunjo said.
GM: I want to find out more about your STS curriculum. That’s a new concept that you have introduced, how is it different from the traditional STEM curriculum?
MS: Yes, STS stands for science, technology and society. And these talks runs parallel to the STEM tutorials. So we would have a main lecture. And then people who are more interested in the humanities aspects around quantum computing focus on the STS session; and people who are more interested in the STEM content participate in tutorials with slightly more mathematical content. Basically, through STS we’re trying to make quantum computing accessible and relevant to humanities students. So looking at the impact it would have on finance, for example, or on the environment. So we invite people to consider the ethical, legal, and political impact of this technology as it’s probably going to be a huge revolution in the next 10 or 20 years.
HK: Yes, STS is run by Lora. I first came up with the idea because I read many articles about how quantum computing will change the world in the next 5 years and it wasn’t always clear what was hype and what was a realistic expectation. Misinformation in science is a big problem, especially when you have something as big as quantum computing as an emerging technology so that’s why I felt it was important to calmly consider its impact and societal implications across a number of sectors.
GM: Is there a specific application of this technology you are excited to see become a reality? And do you have any plans to expand Qsium’s activities into the wider space of quantum technologies, e.g. quantum sensing or imaging or communications?
MS: Currently, our focus is only on quantum computing, though we are only in phase one of our programme (Qsium was founded in February 2023). Hopefully at a later point we can maybe expand the curriculum to focus on different aspects, that’s still yet to be decided. In terms of what excites me personally, I’m quite interested in constructive quantum field theory, which was developed recently as an experimental manifestations testing of whether entanglement can be applied on masses using gravity; ultimately trying to understand whether gravity has constant properties. There are no immediate technology applications now but long-term, this could have a significant effect in our thinking.
GM: And finally, what would you say to young people who are considering pursuing a career in STEM, and particularly in quantum?
MS: Just go for it! I think definitely, the maths can be quite off-putting initially, but just try to get an intuitive understanding of the material first, and then as you go through high school, the maths will come, if you like. So keep working hard in school. The mathematical background will eventually be robust enough to cope with the maths involved in an area that you’re really interested in. But having the initial interest is the main thing, so just read as much as you can about the subject and challenge yourself. You shouldn’t be put off by things that initially look quite daunting. People should just have the confidence to learn more about the things they are interested in.
To find out more about Qsium and get involved in their work, visit https://www.qsium.com/
The Quantum Communications Hub will be collaborating with Qsium on an online outreach event involving half a day of talks on our work. The event will take place via Zoom on Wednesday 23 August from 09:30 – 12:30. To find out more and book a free ticket to attend, visit the event listing on our project website.