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Telling Chicago’s Quantum Stories


The US has 10 federal quantum research centers and four of them are in or near Chicago (California has only two). That’s only one reason the city was named a U.S. Regional and Innovation Technology Hub for quantum tech. Science writer Meredith Fore covers the quantum scene including national labs, universities and startups for the Chicago Quantum Exchange. She shares stories of scientists and technical advances in the region.


[00:00:00] Veronica Combs: Hello, and welcome to the Quantum Spin by HKA. I’m Veronica Combs. I’m a writer and an editor here at the agency. I get to talk every day with really smart people working on really fascinating subjects, everything in the Quantum industry, from hardware to software. On our podcast, we focus in on quantum communication, and by that I don’t mean making networks safe from hacking or entangling photons over long distance, but talking about the technology.

[00:00:26] How do you explain these complicated concepts to people who don’t have a background in science and engineering but want to understand all the same?

[00:00:34] Veronica Combs: Today on the Quantum Spin by HKA, I am talking with Meredith Fore. She is a physicist turned science writer. She’s written about quantum mechanics, black holes, particle physics, and one of her priorities has always been reaching lots of people, not just an academic audience or other physicists, but anyone who’s interested in science and understanding our world a little better.

[00:00:58] Right now, she is a writer at the Chicago Quantum Exchange, which is a hub for advancing the science and engineering of quantum information between the quantum community and the rest of the world. And I’m very happy to say it’s located in the Midwest, which I am too. Thanks for joining us today, Meredith.

[00:01:18] Meredith Fore: Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

[00:01:21] Veronica Combs: So how do you explain the Chicago Quantum Exchange and what you do there? 

[00:01:25] Meredith Fore: Yeah, the word that I like best is convener. We convene people from all sectors of the quantum economy. So academic researchers, government researchers, industry partners, all working to advance the science of quantum information.

[00:01:41] Science and engineering, so that includes workforce development programs to bring more talent into the quantum economy, providing avenues for collaborations and joint projects between industry partners and our scientific facilities. So things like that, the Chicago region has a really strong presence in the world of quantum.

[00:02:02] We have 4 of the 10 federal research centers. The state that has the next most is California and they have 2, so we have the 1st. The country’s first startup accelerator exclusively for quantum companies. And a lot of state support. Governor Pritzker has really put a lot of weight behind Illinois and the Midwest as a hub for quantum.

[00:02:23] Veronica Combs: And what does the team look like? It takes a lot of different skill sets to be a convener and reach out to all the different constituencies. 

[00:02:31] Meredith Fore: Yeah, absolutely. There’s about eight of us. We have our CEO. And then also our faculty director. The communications team is me and our director of communications, Becky Gillespie. We have a workforce development and education team, and then we also have an industry relations team. That’s also two people. We have communications, where we talk about messaging, education and workforce development, and industry relations.

[00:02:59] Veronica Combs: And the core members of the exchange are some of those national labs that you mentioned. 

[00:03:04] Meredith Fore: Yeah. We have six core members, four universities and two national labs. We have University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, University of Wisconsin Madison, and Northwestern.

[00:03:15] And then the two national labs are Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory. So those are our six core partners. And by the time this episode comes out, we will have announced our new member, which is Purdue University. 

[00:03:28] There’s a lot of really, really good, research and industry infrastructure in our region, which is part of why we were designated an EDA tech hub. 

[00:03:35] Veronica Combs: Yeah, so that comes with federal funding, right? 

[00:03:38] Meredith Fore: It comes with the opportunity to apply for federal funding. We’re currently in the process of applying for that funding.

[00:03:46] But our tech hub is called The Bloch, B L O C H, which is a pun on a bloch sphere, which is just a visual representation of what quantum state a qubit is in. 

[00:03:59] Veronica Combs: I love the idea of talking to so many different groups, with their own slice of the industry. Do you change your communication style, when you’re talking with, say a researcher versus an entrepreneur, versus a politician who maybe doesn’t know much about qubits? 

[00:04:14] Meredith Fore: It all depends on what I want from them. From a researcher, if I want to talk about the science, then that’s going to be a different tilt of discussion than if I wanted to talk to them about like talent development. 

[00:04:33] Because I talk to industry researchers in much the same way, where it’s “tell me what you’re working on, tell me about the science of how this works” versus “tell me about how you made this happen. And, what are sort of the mechanics behind how people make this happen?”

[00:04:49] So I think it’s more about what I want to get out of the encounter. 

[00:04:54] Veronica Combs: And how do you manage your writing schedule? Are there overall goals that you’re working toward?

[00:04:59] Meredith Fore: I would say our, always our overall goal in messaging is to communicate our region as being a hub of quantum. But like you said, we have a very broad range of subjects. And that is our strength. One of the things that it took me a second to get used to when I first got this job was that all of our members and partners have their own communications teams, right?

[00:05:24] They have their own writers. So what space does that leave for us to fill in? And it turns out that space is the big picture stuff. The more large picture, collaborative work, the economy, the workforce, all those sort of broad, big picture things, is where we really have our strengths and where we can really emphasize the strengths of the region. 

[00:05:47] Veronica Combs: and probably connect a few dots that people maybe wouldn’t have thought to connect on their own. 

[00:05:53] Meredith Fore: Right. Or can’t connect as a single institution. 

[00:05:57] Veronica Combs: Right. So in your LinkedIn profile, you mentioned that you’ve done journalistic science writing and institutional science writing, whenever we’re working with clients. One of my favorite things is a physicist who has been working on a particular subject for years, and they know everything there is about it, and they know the papers have been written in the history.

[00:06:15] But then you have to get them to translate a little bit. Right?

[00:06:19] Meredith Fore: It is somewhat harder in institutional writing because a lot of times, the scientists get to look at it one more time before it goes out.

[00:06:26] And, uh, it’s very fun when they try to make edits to make it more accurate. And you’re like, no, we can’t do that. I’m sorry. 

[00:06:34] Veronica Combs: Yes. I’ve had that conversation too. And as a journalist, you want it to be right too, right? You want it to be accurate, but you don’t need the math behind all of the work.

[00:06:44] Meredith Fore: Yeah, exactly. 

[00:06:44] Veronica Combs: Yes, I try to assure them that we’ll link to all the research and anyone who wants those details, it’ll just be a click away. Don’t worry. 

[00:06:51] I saw that the exchange has a video series for high schoolers and a couple of college students are your hosts for that. How did that come about? 

[00:07:01] Meredith Fore: Yeah, Quick Quantum for High Schoolers. It was a really big project. Really fun. I also am a word person and had zero experience with video production. So I learned a ton. It was actually this idea that a group of scientists at Argonne had sort of had over the pandemic as like a pandemic project was to make a YouTube series for high schoolers. They came to the Chicago Quantum Exchange to look for funding, the CQE helped them get some funding from Boeing and took over creative control of the project.

[00:07:32] And that’s where I came in. That’s when I got hired and found out about the project. All the writing was done by me, but it was, it was very, very interesting. It took two years from when I first joined, to the publication of the videos. The students that we had, they’re both, well, one was a graduate student and one was postdoc.

[00:07:54] The writing was pretty challenging. There were a lot of people weighing in on it and we all had to agree. The hardest thing to agree on at the beginning was what baseline level of knowledge we are going to expect people to have. Do we want them to know or to have heard the word orbital before electron orbital, or are we going to explain atomic structure?

[00:08:18] Like, where do we start? Where’s the starting point? So that took the longest and that we ended up deciding that someone should at least have seen before the Bohr model of the atom. A nucleus with concentric circles for where the electrons are.

[00:08:34] Veronica Combs: And sometimes I think given how easy it is to find things now, that it’s almost better to start at like a 202 level because then people who are a little interested, you’ve drawn them in and they’re not bored.

[00:08:47] And you can always Google it if you can’t, if you don’t know what an orbital is or whatever, but you don’t want to drive away people who don’t know those words. So that’s interesting. That’s a hard challenge. What level of understanding do you assume with your own writing? 

[00:09:03] Meredith Fore: Well, that’s a great question. We do try to at least cursorily define things like qubit and superposition and entanglement. So we do assume that people have heard of a quantum computer and know that it is a computer that uses quantum mechanics.  I think that’s probably the baseline that if they’re looking at the Chicago Quantum Exchange and reading what we’re putting out there, at least familiar with the fact that quantum technology exists, but maybe not super familiar with the terms or the details about how it works.

[00:09:34] Veronica Combs: Got it. I was reading about the Open Quantum Initiative Fellowship, and it sounded like a really great program for college students and probably some graduate students as well. Tell me about how that works. 

[00:09:46] Meredith Fore: Yeah, it is an undergraduate program. It’s a summer research program, very similar to the NSF REU programs that they put out every year.

[00:09:55] It’s unique in that it’s oriented specifically towards quantum information, its specifically stated goal is to help make the quantum workforce more inclusive and more diverse. And something else unique about it is that it incorporates a bunch of different institutions. So a lot of summer research fellowships for undergraduates take place at one institution.

[00:10:21] We place undergraduates at our members. We’ll have a few at Argonne, a few at UChicago, a few at Northwestern, and it also has a cohort model. We have people who did a summer of research at one of our members come back the next year and get an internship at one of our corporate partners.

[00:10:40] And they, of course, can come back and talk to the new undergraduates. It was important to us that we build a community through this program, but it’s a really, really cool program. The kids are great. I love meeting them every year. And it’s for a lot of them, their first exposure to quantum information research. So it’s a great first step in building that talent pipeline. 

[00:11:04] Veronica Combs: And I suppose your summer 2024 group has already been selected. 

[00:11:08] Meredith Fore: That’s right. Yeah. Our application closes in February every year. 

[00:11:12] Veronica Combs: Okay. And is there a certain number of people that you accept?  

[00:11:14] Meredith Fore: The first year was only 12. And then the next year we were able to almost double it to like 18. And then I think this year is over 20. 

[00:11:26] Veronica Combs: As we were saying before about how scientists want to get very technical and very precise and explain very fine distinctions. Obviously, that’s important, but jargon is the enemy of all good communication and, acronyms obviously are not very good either. How do you think about jargon and how to use language? How do you make sure people feel comfortable asking questions or keep asking questions?

[00:11:52] Meredith Fore: That’s really hard. There’s this exchange I’ve had over and over again where I tell somebody that I write about quantum and they’re like, Oh, that’s too complicated for me. I can’t do that. And I’m like, well, that’s my job. If you don’t understand it, that’s my fault.

[00:12:08] That’s my entire job is to help you understand. I do always try to have that come through in my writing at least a little bit. You do have to use jargon because of how useful it is as a shorthand, as long as you define it. But then sometimes it’s just unnecessary to use jargon at all.

[00:12:30] I think something that’s overlooked is that it’s not just single words that you can consider jargon, but phrases as well. There was a scientist who wanted to change something like, in the limit of a single photon. And it’s like, “in the limit of” is jargon, even though every single word in that phrase is plain English.

[00:12:51] So there’s not only certain words that you just define in a dictionary ways that you can use in the shorthand, but there’s also a lot of framing and syntax that academics have fallen into, and that’s their language, that you have to pull back out. 

[00:13:05] Veronica Combs: Yes, and I’ve found myself falling into some of those phrases just because you know what it means and you can move on to the next topic, which may be harder to explain, but that’s when I close the file and come back to it with fresh eyes after an hour or so to make sure I can stay away from those overused phrases.

[00:13:22] Guess I’ve been spending too much time on social media lately because I ran into the whole, “I’ve done my own research” meme. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one, but there was a lot of that about vaccines, unfortunately, and I guess I just continue to be shocked by all of the anti-expert, anti-science attitudes out there in the world.

[00:13:42] You’re in a pretty good spot, working with experts and being in a university setting. But how do you deal with that in your work as a writer?

[00:13:51] Meredith Fore: We don’t have to deal with what climate change scientists have to deal with or what vaccine scientists have to deal with. But it is something of concern for us as communicators and something that I found very interesting is that it’s a lot more about emotion than it is about facts.

[00:14:10] So there’s that saying floating around a few years ago, like facts don’t care about your feelings. And it sort of turns out that your feelings don’t necessarily care about facts either. They’ve shown that to change someone’s mind, it’s not necessarily enough to just give them more information.

[00:14:26] That more information will not do what you want it to do in terms of changing a perspective, because a lot of what we believe and know is held very deep in like a sense of identity and in group belonging. And, you know, so it’s  more emotional than I think a lot of scientists would believe.

[00:14:44] And that from a communications perspective, means that we have to lean into, not the superiority of knowing more, but the human connection that there are people behind this science. It’s not a machine in the government basement, like spitting out results, right?

[00:15:02] It’s someone staying late on the weekends to finish their grant proposal so the human connection and the storytelling, right? The story of how science happens, I think was really important during the pandemic. It was hard because the science was all happening in front of everyone, right?

[00:15:20] Like first you need masks, then you don’t need masks, then you do need masks. And that’s how science is done. It oscillates around the truth until it finds it. Right. But the public is not used to seeing that, not used to seeing the mess before we figure things out. And I think that’s something that we should communicate more to the public, that science is messy, that we don’t know everything, but we know a lot of things pretty damn sure. And here’s how and why. 

[00:15:49] Veronica Combs: Right. Right. I was talking to my son about disinformation and we talked actually about emotions, like, you know, something that you want to hear?

[00:15:57] Does this reinforce something that you already think? And is it making you mad or sad or? What is it evoking in you to try to look for the signs of disinformation or propaganda or just someone trying to be manipulative. 

[00:16:13] Meredith Fore: yeah, 

[00:16:13] Veronica Combs: I like that one, your feelings don’t care about facts. That’s a good one

[00:16:17] Meredith Fore:. I absolutely have had to get into the habit of being like the madder it makes me the harder I have to look into it. Just being conscious of all the ways that our emotions are manipulated into believing what we believe and knowing what we know. It’s getting harder and harder.

[00:16:37] Veronica Combs: And I actually do use that, the idea of the scientific process and we’re learning things that we have an idea and we test it and that idea might change because we have new information because obviously quantum technology is not, it’s still new in terms of actually having products for the marketplace or specific devices we can show off to people.

[00:16:58] So, that’s sort of the double-edged sword of the industry. I think it’s so great to be in on all of this discovery and seeing how things change, but then, it’s not an app yet. It’s not a phone. It’s something a little more embryonic than that, I guess. 

[00:17:13] Meredith Fore: Embryonic. I like that.

[00:17:14] Veronica Combs: So you get to meet all these scientists, like you said, staying late to, to finish a grant proposal or working on the weekends to finish an experiment. How do you find ways to highlight their interesting stories or their humanity? 

[00:17:29] Meredith Fore: It’s often dependent on the scientist. I’ve had interviews where it gets really personal and it’s this very cool story about how, like I profiled one scientist and he was talking about how he used to look at the stars with his dad and like now he works with light and it was cool and perfect.

[00:17:47] And then, I had the same profile, but 1 month later with a different scientist and it was like pulling teeth. All he could give me was like, you know, summaries of his abstracts, and I’m like, what do you do for fun? And it turns out he juggles. So you do have to consciously, sort of reach and ask them more personal questions and not all of them are happy to do it, which is fine.

[00:18:12] But everyone’s a human and everyone does something after work. So just throwing in those little personal details is fun for me. And I hope fun for the reader as well. 

[00:18:24] Veronica Combs: Are there any articles or interviews or people over the last year that stand out for you that you could share with us?

[00:18:29] Meredith Fore: Well, I am currently in the middle of writing a big piece, highlighting how to be in quantum, you no longer need a physics PhD. I’m highlighting a bunch of people who have very nontraditional backgrounds, and how they got into quantum. I was talking to one person who hired a cake decorator to etch or pattern their circuits because she was good with her hands and had a sense of aesthetics.

[00:19:02] And that was just, that’s such a cool story, you know? 

[00:19:07] There’s going to be some cool stories in that piece, I think, talking to people. There’s someone high up at one of our corporate partners, who’s also a rabbi. So just fun, personal details, that show their humanity.

[00:19:22] And I’m, I’m excited for the piece to come out to really show that the face of quantum is really not what you would expect.

[00:19:29] Veronica Combs: I was talking with another guest about, a, sort of a quantum generalist, you know, if you’re going to put quantum hardware in a data center or use algorithms to optimize investment strategies or discover new chemicals, there’ll be a lot of people who don’t know anything about physics.

[00:19:47] That need to understand the basics, or at least, how to work with the technology and understand its promise. So I’m glad to hear that. You’re showing that there’s lots of people in the industry and lots of ways to get the work done. So, you went to quantum summer school last year.

[00:20:01] I was reading in one of your columns at Fermilab. Do you have any suggestions on how to get up to speed with quantum or regular reads that have anything for someone who wants to know more? 

[00:20:11] Meredith Fore: Yeah, I would highly recommend our Quick Quantum for High Schoolers, even if you’re not in high school. I think it’s a really, really good just basic foundation of what quantum is.

[00:20:22] And the summer school program was really interesting, but it was definitely more advanced. I’ve had to dig deep back into my memories of grad school to remember how to do certain things and certain equations and such. I know that IBM, for example, has a large online community around their quantum computing language, Qiskit.

[00:20:43] I’ve heard from a lot of people that was their first introduction into quantum, so they have a lot of instructional videos, they have a lot of resources,  and then of course signing up for our newsletter, the Chicago Quantum Exchange newsletter, where we report on what’s going on in the region and occasionally have informational articles and such, like what is quantum biology, that sort of thing.

[00:21:04] Veronica Combs:  I’m curious, your take on the whole quantum hub designation from the federal government and the chance to apply for more funds. What parts of the Chicago regional landscape do you think deserves more attention or more funding, or what would you like to see get bigger, more well known?

[00:21:22] Meredith Fore: That’s a really good question. I think one of the things that we are really strong in is quantum networking. So we have a quantum network. That’s 124 miles long. It goes from Uchicago and sort of cycles around the campus, goes to Argonne, goes a little bit past Firme, and there will soon be expanding that, under the block funding to even go further.

[00:21:48] And I think that’s a really good opportunity that I think the Chicago region is uniquely situated for, to create a big quantum network, the biggest in the nation. And I think that has a really good chance of happening. And I don’t know if you saw the news. I think it was posted today, but Governor Pritzker is looking to put a literal quantum campus in Chicago that will have cryogenic facilities, and a lot of infrastructure for all kinds of quantum technology, quantum computing and networking. Another part of the quantum networking project is that the expansion that we’re planning would go through a town with a community college.

[00:22:29] And so we’re planning on doing some workforce development programming with that community college because they’ll have a node of the quantum network located there. The projected economic impact of the hub is somewhere around 60 billion dollars. It’s really, really exciting.

[00:22:45] And there’s a bunch of different projects associated with it. A lot of industry partnerships, industry partnering with a lot of the tools and facilities that are traditionally locked into the university or national lab setting, like the nanofabrication facility, or the facility at Argonne that’s very important for quantum technology. There’s just so much opportunity that goes along with being designated a tech hub and it’s really exciting to think of all the things that we can do. 

[00:23:13] Veronica Combs: And I think there is a spur on the quantum network to a library. I was reading up on that network and I thought, Oh my gosh, a public library. 

[00:23:25] Meredith Fore: That’s an awesome project. That’s down in Urbana Champaign. And that is a network that’s mostly between a physics lab and the public library in Urbana, the Urbana public library. If we get this funding, the network that we’re going to build is going to be on the size of the state.

[00:23:45] Like we’ll be able to connect down to that spur. 

[00:23:47] Veronica Combs: Wow. 

[00:23:48] Meredith Fore: Yeah. So really, really big. We’re talking huge scale. It’s very exciting. And this is all using existing optical fiber infrastructure, which is also really cool. But the public project, the public network in Urbana is also very neat. I went to the opening. There’s a little display in the library where you can alter the phase of the photons that are being exchanged between the lab.  It’s very unique, it’s super, super cool. And just a very unique way for the public to engage in an actual quantum project. 

[00:24:24] Veronica Combs: Yeah, yeah, that was my takeaway.

[00:24:26] I’m so glad to hear about the community college angle. That’s great. A client of ours does some quantum communications work and I’ve been trying to get them to talk more about it because people get that right. Like a faster internet or no one can eavesdrop on your communication or whatever.

[00:24:42] That’s such a concrete everyday thing. That is a hook to get people into the more complicated topics. 

[00:24:48] Meredith Fore: Absolutely. It’s fun to talk about. Once you have quantum computers, right, you would need a quantum internet for the quantum computers to talk to each other. So it’s interesting to talk about it, not as its own thing, right?

[00:25:05] The quantum internet is not going to be independent of the internet. It’s going to be built like on top of it, but it is really exciting and it is really cool. Like you said, people get it. People get why it’s important to have, Communication channels that can’t be eavesdropped on, things for security passwords, right?

[00:25:21] We’re all sort of in the know about that kind of thing. We had an outreach event. The Chicago Quantum Exchange did a voting event where we had high school students come to our building and vote, in a debate question, and those votes went to Argonne and back and like, were verifiably, not eavesdropped on.

[00:25:42] So that was, that was a really fun event. Barack Obama made a surprise appearance. The Obama Foundation is in our building. It was a really fun event. 

[00:25:56] Veronica Combs: Wow. So we will keep an eye out for the next set of fellows that are coming up this summer and definitely sign up for the Chicago Quantum Exchange newsletter.

[00:26:07] Well, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I know you’re busy, but we really appreciate getting a little update on Chicago and everything that’s happening there. So thanks so much.

[00:26:16] Meredith Fore: Great to talk to you. Thanks, Veronica. 

[00:26:18] Veronica Combs: Thanks for joining us for another episode of the Quantum Spin by HKA. You can find all episodes on our website, Of course you can find us in all your favorite podcast platforms as well. Follow us on LinkedIn under HKA marketing communications and find us on X, formerly known as Twitter  @HKA_PR.

[00:26:40] If you have an idea for a guest, or if you’d like to be on the podcast yourself, you can reach me on LinkedIn, Veronica Combs, or you can go to our website and share your suggestion via the contact us page. Thanks for listening. Talk to you soon.