Home » Quantum physicist and ABC Boyer lecturer Michelle Simmons on the joy and the reward of being a scientist

Quantum physicist and ABC Boyer lecturer Michelle Simmons on the joy and the reward of being a scientist

by Narges Mohammadi

Early in her career, Michelle Simmons AO was often asked a particular question.

“Oh, you study physics,” someone would say. “Isn’t it all already worked out?”

“I remember thinking, ‘We know almost nothing’,” she says.

“We know such a tiny smidgen of the world.”

Professor Simmons has devoted her career to expanding that understanding.

As one of the world’s foremost quantum physicists, she’s spent decades at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, pioneering the development of electrical components at the atomic scale and founding Australia’s first quantum computing company.

This week she was awarded the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science and is soon to deliver a series of talks for the ABC’s Boyer Lecture series.

But no accolade she’s received – and there have been many, including 2018 Australian of the Year – can match the thrill of new discovery.

“When you understand something for the first time, even back to primary school … it’s like an adrenaline hit,” Professor Simmons says.

“All my life, I’ve always gone to find where the hardest challenge is, what’s the most difficult conceptual thing to do, something at the edge of what’s possible.

“I love that edge.”

The next frontier is in sight but, for now, just out of reach: a quantum computer, capable of solving complex problems exponentially faster than conventional computers.

But for Professor Simmons, there’s joy to be found in the chase.

Finding her purpose

Michelle Simmons, 56, grew up in London with her mother, a bank manager, and her father, a policeman.

Her dad encouraged her to play chess and even hoped she’d make a career out of it.

But at tournaments, something was missing.

“A lot of the people I was playing with were completely obsessed with the game … [but] I just couldn’t see that being my whole life,” she says.

“I realised at a very early age that if you’re going to be successful at something, you’ve got to give it everything.”

And she wanted to direct her passion elsewhere.

“I had a really good physics teacher, and I remember realising that I could understand the world mathematically,” Professor Simmons says.

“It all fell into place.”

After school, she embarked upon a double degree in physics and chemistry at Durham Universitylocated in the north of England.

She went on to do a PhD in solar cell technology, where she did everything from creating the crystals inside the cells to testing and analysing her results.

“[I] got the joy of the whole spectrum,” she says.

“I realised at that point, if I had a career, I’d want to be able to do everything. I wouldn’t want to just be in one area.”

However, after she finished her PhD, she moved to an 80-person research team at Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, where she found herself at the bottom of a sizeable hierarchy.

“I came in as a person that could fabricate and make devices, and in those days, the tier at the top was the theoretician, then the experimental measurement person, and the person that made it at the bottom,” she says.

“That was when I really first saw the concept of people boxing me into a certain area. And I remember thinking, I can do all of that.”

So she set out to.

Professor Simmons would spend late nights and weekends alone in the lab, working on other parts of her team’s project and puzzling over problems.

“I have a fundamental belief [that] you have to teach yourself something if you want to learn it deeply,” she says.

“It’s like a musical instrument: you have to keep doing those hours of learning.”

Australia as a ‘technological powerhouse’

After working as a research fellow in quantum electronics at Cavendish for seven years, Professor Simmons left the UK for a new challenge.

“I remember thinking, in England, it’s kind of safe; I’m in a good institution, I can do really well,” she says.

But she wanted more than safety. She wanted “academic freedom”.

The US was very competitive and “not very collegiate”, so, in a move that surprised some of her peers, she set her sights on Australia.

She saw it as a country where ambition is paired with a gung-ho mentality and cheery disposition.

“It was an opportunity to pursue something really ambitious with a bunch of people that wanted to give it a go in a positive environment,” she says.

“To this day, I honestly believe I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done here anywhere else … I say to young people, really, there’s nowhere better.”

She moved to Sydney in 1999 and did a lecture tour around the country’s academic institutions, where she discovered an amazing community of scientific minds.

“I thought, ‘Why does the rest of the world not know about this?’,” she says.

“I think it’s partly cultural; Australians don’t like to talk up what they do … [But] you’ve got to back yourself, believe yourself and celebrate each other because it really is amazing what happens in Australia.

“It’s the new technology powerhouse of the future.”

The power of a good team

That same year, Professor Simmons joined the University of New South Wales (UNSW), where she is now director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology.

She leads a diverse team comprising eight different skill sets, from engineers to mathematicians.

“I realised relatively young in my career, you can only do so much as an individual, and actually, you’re quite limited as an individual to be able to do anything that’s really transformational,” she says.

“So then figuring out how to work with teams and how to leverage everyone’s unique skills, and then do that in a way [in which] everyone’s having fun — that’s my utopian dream now.”

While some might imagine the scientific process to be stepwise and technical, Professor Simmons says creativity is essential to breaking new ground.

“People don’t think scientists are creative. I think they’re the most creative people because you don’t know until you get there how it’s going to work, and there are multiple paths you can take,” she says.

She’s not afraid of obstacles along the way.

“When I first arrived [at UNSW], we put out this eight-point plan, and someone from IBM said, ‘Yes, great, but none of them have been done and the chances of them getting [done] is zero’,” she says.

“And I was thinking, ‘Well, how do you know if no-one’s ever done it?’

“So I really love it when people write down all the reasons why our stuff is not going to work. It’s like a challenge.”

Speaking to the next generation

Professor Simmons is passionate about engaging young people – particularly women – in the sciences.

“[Young people] will pick up a level of knowledge from watching and reading [online] that we never had access to,” she says.

“We’ve got to keep challenging them. They’re learning earlier and differently than we did, and there are huge opportunities to bring them through.”

Through her company, Silicon Quantum Computing, which is based within UNSW, Professor Simmons encourages students to learn from career scientists and see how their study can impact the real world, which she says can be “game-changing”.

She’d also like to see school-aged children and their teachers working with universities to help students map their future careers — and learn the value of making mistakes.

“As a scientist, you have to be wrong to learn,” she explains.

“I’m still trying to get lots of young girls to embrace that, that this is a positive thing [and] not to be scared to do it.

“The joy and the reward of being a scientist and working in a team, it’s just so amazing. So I really don’t want them to miss out.”

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