Graduate student spotlight: Indrajeet
Indrajeet is one of the many graduate students pursuing their PhD at Syracuse, and is in the advanced stages of completing his work in our department. He works with Dr. Britton Plourde, researching ways to build and manipulate qubits, the smallest component of a quantum computer. Like many of his peers in the graduate program, Indrajeet is not from the United States, and as such has had to deal with living in an entirely different culture and environment on top of the regular challenges associated with completing a PhD in Physics.
As a kid growing up in India, Indrajeet always had a passion for science, and a particular interest in physics. He remembers fighting with his family over what to watch on the television, as they did not share his love for the Discovery channel. He worked hard to do well in high school so that he could pursue a degree in science. Normally, great Indian students pursue an engineering degree, but Indrajeet knew he was passionate about more fundamental science. Indrajeet took the road less travelled and pursued a physics degree.
Once he began pursuing his physics degree, Indrajeet decided he wanted as much research experience as possible. His first opportunity came working in a low temperature lab, and he seized it. His work in low temperature physics would persist through both his undergraduate and masters career. Upon arrival at Syracuse, Indrajeet was quickly connected to Dr. Plourde through another faculty member. His experience in low temperature labs made him a great candidate to join the coldest experiment at Syracuse University. When recalling his time as a teaching assistant before joining Dr. Plourde’s group, Indrajeet amusingly remarked that it “was not my favorite thing.” Although Indrajeet did not need another incentive to quickly get into research, he certainly had one!
Indrajeet is now fully immersed in his research on building and manipulating quantum bits, shortened to qubits. Qubits are the elemental building block of a quantum computer in the same way that bits are the elemental building block for a regular computer. However, unlike regular bits which are restricted to being either 0 or 1, qubits can also exist in a superposition of these states before being measured. The existence of these mixed states of 0 and 1 enable a quantum computer to perform in ways that a regular computer never could. However, building and maintaining more than a few qubits at a time is a mountain of a physics and engineering obstacle, one that Indrajeet is hoping to help the quantum computing field summit.
Perhaps the biggest problems with building a quantum computer are noise and scalability. The qubits are very sensitive to the environment so they need to be kept isolated to preserve the information, this is the noise problem. Currently they can hold information for only about a few milliseconds. While he wants to keep the qubit isolated and information preserved, Indrajeet also needs to probe and manipulate the qubits to solve problems. Currently, it takes a very expensive and bulky set of instruments to control a single qubit. A fully functional quantum computer will have several thousand or perhaps millions of qubits. Even with the prohibitively expensive cost, if we were to theoretically build a functioning quantum computer today using perfect qubits, it might just take up an area the size of SU campus or 100 city blocks.
Indrajeet works with qubits which are made from superconducting circuit elements. These circuit elements, when cooled down to very low temperature, have absolutely no resistance and no loss when a current moves through them. Typically, superconducting qubits are probed using a planar or 3D cavity, whose resonance modes are very far apart. Indrajeet is working to couple the qubit to a superconducting metamaterial (fancy word for an engineered material with properties not found in nature) which in turn will bring these resonant modes much closer together. This would enable a qubit to couple with many modes simultaneously while generating highly mixed states of 0 and 1. These systems can potentially be used to simulate quantum systems or probe qubits with compact size as compared to the planar or 3D cavities.
Although the cost will remain high, Indrajeet knows money can always be found or, in the worst-case scenario, printed! This is why he is more focused on solving the scalability issues of a quantum computer. Indrajeet believes that if this problem was fixed, humanity would be within striking distance of a functioning quantum computer.
In the meantime, Indrajeet is happy with what the lab has given him. His own words say it best,
Besides the learning and creating new knowledge during research, I find the work experience to be very interesting. Working in a lab is a very different experience as compared to people working in theory. While working on my project, I have a chance to get hands-on experience on all kinds of things and acquire various technical skills like device fabrication, measurements, simulation, and writing a paper to say a few.
He has also expressed gratitude for other experience outside of the lab given to him by the department. Indrajeet has taken advantage of the networking opportunities afforded by his ability to go to conferences and meet other professionals in the field and has also enjoyed learning about other fields of physics through the weekly department colloquia, held each Thursday during the semester.
However, Indrajeet’s experiences in graduate school are not all rainbows and butterflies. Indrajeet is an international student, and so many aspects of graduate school and Syracuse that domestic students take for granted can be a new experience or challenge for him. He saw his first snowfall in Syracuse, and he has sure seen many since! He also had to deal with living in an American city, which completely lacks useful public transit, without a car for the first three years of his graduate career.
This is all not to mention the stress and anxiety that can come along when dealing with the immigration policies of a less than accommodating US government. It is a difficult decision to go home if you are unsure whether or not they will let you back into the country when you want to return. Indrajeet specifically mentioned the shock of the Trump Administration’s attempt to deport all foreign students if they did not take an in-person class this semester. The status of immigration policies is always in the back of his mind.
On a more personal level, Indrajeet misses his friends and family. Even without restrictions from the government, he cannot go home for every celebration or emergency. There are a lot of milestones in the five year period that it takes to complete a PhD, and Indrajeet did not get to spend many of them with his family and close friends.
Even with all these challenges, ultimately Indrajeet recognizes the benefits of his experience working in the United States. When asked what he has enjoyed about pursuing his degree in America, Indrajeet had this to say,
I think I have been lucky to work in the Physics department and specifically with Britton. It provided me with support and stability both financially and with my research interests. I have friends who were not so lucky. Another advantage of pursuing a degree in the US is diversity. I got chances to work with and be friends with a diverse group of people which allowed me to exchange ideas and skills and reshaped how I think and view the world. I enjoyed the different cuisines and developed my culinary “skills”.
Although it does not make up for the lack of contact with his family, Indrajeet’s experiences in America have definitely enriched his graduate school development in a unique way.
After his time at Syracuse is done, Indrajeet hopes to move onto an industry job in quantum computing. This makes sense, as some of the most advanced labs in the world that are working to build a quantum computer are associated with corporations like IBM and Google, instead of universities. He has expressed some distress that many of these jobs require American citizenship, but he is still hopeful that he can find one even with a diminished pool of jobs to choose from. The combination of the expertise he has gained in the lab along with the experience of overcoming challenges outside of it will make Indrajeet a strong contender for any job he pursues.