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Choosing Quantum: A Grad Student Tells His Story


Jacob Siderman is a member of the first-ever class of the UCLA Master of Quantum Science and Technology (MQST) program, specializing in trapped ion qubit research. He is also a Quantum Optoelectronics Graduate Intern at HRL Laboratories. Jacob joins host Veronica Combs to talk about the UCLA quantum master’s program and what he’s learned at UCLA, HRL Laboratories and as an HKA intern. 

Jacob is passionate about the development and deployment of novel and impactful quantum technologies. He has experience in Quantum Optics, Ensemble Quantum Computing, Modeling/Simulation and Quantum Information & Algorithms. Jacob is preparing to join the workforce in quantum computing and laser physics. 

Veronica is a quantum tech editor, writer and PR professional. She manages public relations for quantum computing and tech clients as an account manager with HKA Marketing Communications, the #1 agency in quantum tech PR. Veronica joined HKA from TechRepublic, where she was a senior writer. She has covered technology, healthcare and business strategy for more than 10 years. 


Host Veronica Combs: Hello, I’m Veronica Combs, and this is The Quantum Spin by HKA Marketing Communications. Today I am talking to a person at the start of his career. Jacob Siderman is finishing his master’s degree at UCLA. He’s in the first group of students to finish this program. Jacob, thanks for joining us today. I’m so glad you could talk with us about your work. 

Guest Jacob Siderman: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really happy to be here. 

Veronica Combs: Your undergrad was in physics, and so now you’re in a master’s program. Tell us how you got to this point. 

Jacob Siderman: Yeah, so I have had the enormous privilege and challenge of being the first class at UCLA’s new Master in Quantum Science and Technology, which is with their whole new quantum ecosystem. In undergrad, I was always interested in quantum computing and quantum technology, and I was very picky about graduate school because graduate school for me was a means to an end. It was to learn everything that I needed to know to be able to make impactful contributions in quantum technology. When I was starting my undergraduate career, it seemed that the only way to do that was through a PhD. As we know, a PhD is a huge commitment. As some master’s programs opened up, the UCLA one was really industry-oriented and application-focused, and I was like, ‘You know what? This is exactly what I’m looking for.” A PhD may happen in the future, depending, but it’s not going to be just because, ‘Oh, it’s the next thing to do – do a PhD.’ No, if I find a really fulfilling and impactful path through industry, then I’ve achieved what I set out to do. 

Veronica Combs: The program is multidisciplinary, and it sounds like it has not just people who have an undergrad in physics, but engineers of various types. 

Jacob Siderman: A lot of students from all across the United States as well as a huge swath of international students. It was really fun to meet so many different types of people. There were people with backgrounds in solid state physics and laser physics, engineers, a lot of computer scientists that wanted to learn more about the physical implementation of quantum computing as well as professors with a range of backgrounds. 

Veronica Combs: Right, right. There are so many subsystems in quantum computers that you do have to have such a wide range of not just physicists and mathematicians but also, like you said, engineers who can keep things cold enough or get the lasers performing the right way – all those important technical details. 

Jacob Siderman: Important contributions and breakthroughs have been made by people that can make a connection between two different disciplines and see how one developed technique and another developed technique actually have quite a bit of overlap and can be used to help each other. We see that right now with tensor networks. Tensor networks can be done really quickly on GPUs, and people are making connections: ‘Oh, maybe you don’t need a quantum computer for everything,’ because we’ve developed efficient ways to calculate certain things, and now we see how we might be able to do that on a near term system like a GPU. 

Veronica Combs: Is there anything about the last year you spent in school that has been particularly helpful for you? Or an experience that really sticks out in your mind? 

Jacob Siderman: Gosh, the program was so comprehensive. We learned everything. I think that, coming into the program, there are a lot of misconceptions, misunderstandings, overestimations or underestimations of quantum computing, and what quantum computing can do and what it is. By learning it all from a very basic level, building it up and having to understand every single piece of theory and physics that goes into it, you get a better understanding of what you can actually do with a quantum system. That is a valuable piece of the program. 

Veronica Combs: It’s not just a science project but it’s not quite a product for the market yet. You don’t want to overpromise but there is a lot of potential that is rapidly being realized. Like you say, you have to understand what it can do but also we’re not quite ready for it yet. 

To finish up your master’s program, you have an internship. I know that you can’t share a lot of details about what you’re working on but tell us as much as you can.  

Jacob Siderman: I’m at HRL Laboratories with the Quantum Optoelectronics group, constructing and deploying something called an ECDL – an external cavity diode laser – exploring stable laser frequency locking schemes. Stability is really important for real physical systems for any sort of atomic device where you want to address a particular transition or measure a certain transition. 

Veronica Combs: Did most of your cohort go all over the place for their internships? 

Jacob Siderman: A lot of students really fell in love with research that UCLA professors are doing, so they’ve chosen to stay at UCLA. A substantial portion of our cohort went to the Air Force research lab. A few of us have joined industry partners here in LA. It’s been nice. The proximity is good. 

Veronica Combs: I know this isn’t your first internship in the quantum industry. You worked for HKA for a summer, is that right? 

Jacob Siderman: Yeah, that’s true. I think I was a quantum tech PR intern. It was kind of an experimental internship, seeing if someone with a technical background… what they could contribute to… 

Veronica Combs: …the agency in general? Yeah, it’s a real skill to be able to talk about science in a way that is correct and precise but also not so dense that no one gets it – unless you have a PhD in physics. That’s an important skill. 

How do you keep track of news in the industry? Do you do a lot of reading? Obviously, you’re busy in the lab most days, but how are we doing when it comes to explaining quantum to the broader business audience? 

Jacob Siderman: Oh, my goodness. I’m working in this field and it’s hard to keep up when you’re involved with the newest stuff. Even if you are the cutting edge, keeping up with the rest of the cutting edge is a lot. There’s a huge swath of brilliant people doing lots and lots of great work. Keeping up with it is really, really, really hard. You can be reading archives and reading journals and trying to read papers that seem important to you but there’s more information being produced than you’ll ever be able to consume and understand. You’re doing such a great job. I think it’s really important to have reputable people that are interested in giving facts and an accurate representation of what’s going on and not just hype, because hype is misinformative and it’s dangerous. 

Veronica Combs: Yes, it leads to a lot of skepticism as well, which is difficult to overcome, I think, sometimes for new technologies or even developing technologies as well. 

What are you hoping your next step is? Do you have a dream job in mind? Do you want to stay in the lab? Have you thought about what you want to do next? 

Jacob Siderman: I love lab work. I love getting hands-on. I love having some sort of physical product to show from what I’ve done. I love taking a measurement, looking at the oscilloscope and being like, ‘Yep, that’s the number. That’s the transition. That’s the thing we’re looking for.’ It’s really satisfying. I think I’m definitely going to be pursuing jobs in AMO – atomic molecular and optical physics. Trapped ion is really big right now. There are some neutral ion applications as well, but I think for now, AMO is really calling to me. There are plenty of great companies out there and I’m seeing my options. 

Veronica Combs: That’s great. Since this program that you’re in is new, what do you think people are coming away with? What could they contribute to companies that are trying to either build something from scratch or do research? 

Jacob Siderman: That’s a great question, and I think that’s the fundamental question of the whole program. I think the strengths of the program are that there are a lot of brilliant people saying certain things you need to know that haven’t been written down, and no one’s put it all in one place, and we want all the things that, over the last 20 years, we said, ‘Gosh, I wish someone had told me that.’ I feel like I got a year’s worth of, ‘Gosh, I wish someone told me that when I was your age,’ and I found that that was really useful and puts you a couple of years ahead in terms of your knowledge and getting hands-on. Working with things for years and years makes you really good at it. I really want to jump into industry and get working on something and get good at that – build that intuition. 

Veronica Combs: The other big thing that quantum companies are trying to figure out is hiring, and trying to get more people interested in physics and lasers and chemistry and engineering and all those things. Do you have any advice for a high school student or maybe even a younger student that might be interested in this? 

Jacob Siderman: I got involved in this field because this was something that I couldn’t stand to not know about, if that makes any sense. It just bothered me that I didn’t know why these certain quantum phenomena occurred. You can ask why, and you’ll never get to the end, but if you want to know a few more answers to the next three or four whys that you would ask, I think this is a great route to go down. 

Veronica Combs: Yes. That reminds me of another conversation I had with a researcher. He said, ‘Well, we thought that our experiment would show this, but it actually showed that, so that led us down,’ like you said, ‘a whole new path.’ Ongoing creativity, curiosity and just the will to learn new things and be wrong – those seem like the real hallmarks of a good quantum industry person. 

Jacob Siderman: Getting involved in this field, I think that there’s a huge emphasis on getting into a great school, getting into a great program, having a lot of knowledge of quantum mechanics, being very good at math, your test scores and your GPA. Of course, it’s important to have your fundamentals and to know what’s going on. Your creativity is also very important, and your ability to work well on teams. No one person will know everything, but if you work on a team with people that have good communication skills, you’ll get more done. That’s something to develop. That’s something that’s worth working on – and also keeping your creative spark alive. The most incredible contributions to science and technology are from a small group of people that have technical mastery and have a lot of great creativity available to them. When you have technical mastery, when that creative spark is there and your technical mastery has turned from studying into an intuition, it’s just something that you have with you, and then your creativity is going to help you do really, really, really, really cool things, really incredible things. As you go into your studies and you get technical, don’t lose that creativity or think that that’s not important. Keep it with you. 

Veronica Combs: Well, thank you so much for your time today and for telling us about your program. If anyone’s looking to hire a new graduate, we can certainly put you in touch with one who has a lot of good qualities to be a great member of the quantum industry. 

Thanks for joining us. You can find HKA on Twitter and on LinkedIn, and I hope you will tune in again for our next episode.