Talks Tech #47: From Astrophysics and Discovering New Galaxies – to Building and Using Quantum Computers

Talks Tech #47: From Astrophysics and Discovering New Galaxies – to Building and Using Quantum Computers

Written by WWC Team


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Eliza Sarobhasa, CTO at Women Who Drone and Leadership Fellow at Women Who Code, Python, meets with Danica Marsden, Principal Quantum Computing Scientist at the Bank of Canada. They discuss Danica’s unique career path, her love of astrophysics, and her work discovering new galaxies and building and using quantum computers. 

Danica’s Bio: Danica received her BSc in 2005 in combined honors Physics and astronomy, followed by a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in experimental cosmology – building cameras and telescopes to study the far Universe. Following her PhD, Danica accepted a Keck Institute for Space Studies fellowship at Caltech and worked with a research group at UC Santa Barbara as a postdoctoral scholar, continuing her work on novel technology for astrophysics. At the same time, she taught Astronomy classes at the local Santa Barbara city college and had a small electronics assembly business. After this, Danica switched gears, working in new technology development at Suncor (Petrocan) from 2013 to 2015. In 2015, Danica was recruited to quantum computing as a technical project manager for D-Wave Systems.

In 2020, she moved to a more technical role with the SQT lab at SFU and start-up Photonic, working on universal quantum computing with Dr. Stephanie Simmons. In 2021 Danica was recruited to the Bank of Canada to develop their first quantum strategy, program, and roadmap. She applies quantum computing to central banking operations, economics and finance, while also advising on projects pertaining to quantum resiliency. In her spare time Danica can usually be found on an adventure or volunteering.

Why physics? And specifically astrophysics? Was there a moment you can recall knowing “astrophysics is my passion/path?”

It was philosophically driven. I was curious about the world and the universe and was always fascinated by the questions: what is out there? How do we know what we know? This ultimately led me towards building detectors, cameras, and telescopes to study the far universe.

Ultimately the only information we get about the universe on the larger scales are these photons particles of light that arrive here on earth after traveling for billions of years. How we collect that light with the detectors and the cameras and the telescopes, and then how we process and analyze that information is the source from which we derive all of this knowledge. Getting to the crux of that and doing it myself and understanding it myself, drove me.

When you look at my path it seems really straightforward, but in fact, as is often the case in life, it was a little more windy than it might at first appear.

 A lot of questions start to come up even in high school about what you’re going to do with your life. I really liked the clarity of math. You’re right or you’re wrong, there’s no opinion about it. In the Social Sciences, English, and the Arts merit is based more on opinion.

I liked the clarity of math and I originally thought I was going to get a degree in science and engineering, and design planes for the Air Force. I had really liked Top Gun when I was in school and I thought it would be cool to design those kinds of planes and maybe fly them too. That’s how I started. And then of course life intervened.

I did my first year of university in general science, and I was actually really bored. When taking large survey courses and learning generic calculus there’s no practical application, and I think a lot of people get lost in that, as did I.

I actually quit after my first year and I became a ski instructor in Australia and then here in Canada. I took that little bit of time off, I tried some other things and then after a year or so, I missed that intellectual stimulation, so I decided to give it another shot. In my second year I was able to start studying things like relativity and quantum mechanics. It got a little more interesting and I could see more applications.

I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t had that moment in their life of, “what am I doing right now?” Having a process for figuring out where you’re gonna go next usually entails a bit of research, talking to people, networking, interacting with people who do jobs that you’ve never heard of or jobs where you don’t know what they entail.Traveling, working at different places, and giving yourself that room to discover. I think that’s important for everybody. It never appears as though successful people are doing that, but I can almost guarantee that everybody’s gone through that at least once in their life.

What was the process of deciding to pursue higher education?

When I was an undergrad, I wound up taking a physics course that had a couple of hundred students. In the spring there was a professor who was walking by me one day in the hallway and he said, “what are you doing this summer?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Do you want to come work in my lab this summer”? And I said,”sure, I need a job.”

It turned out that he built telescopes, and I wound up working in his lab for the next several summers during my undergrad, learning how to solder and machine and write code and all those things that are effectively what most people think of as engineering, but this also encompassed certain aspects of physics. Llater when I left his lab, I was curious and asked him why he’d picked me, thinking he was trying to promote diversity in physics. He told me it had been because I had tied for the top score on the final exam. Sometimes these things happen and present opportunities.

After my undergrad I was backpacking around Europe for six months giving myself some time to figure out what to do next, and that same professor said, “hey, what are you going to do next? ” I told him I wasn’t sure, and he asked if I had thought about grad school. I told him I couldn’t afford grad school and he said, “oh, no, in the sciences if you get in, they pay you.” I said, “oh, that changes things.”

I applied to several schools and I knew that if I was going to do that, I wanted to pursue experimental cosmology and continue building telescopes and studying the far universe. So I only applied to programs where there was, already a professor doing that. I had contacted those specific professors to ask what kind of work and projects they had.

A lot of people think that you just apply to a program at large, but it’s actually important to realize that the person who will ultimately be your boss or thesis advisor is an individual. You need to do the research to seek out who those individuals are, what they work on, and get excited about the potential projects because you need to have that connection. Even if you get into a grad program you still need to connect with a professor in a lab or an advisor.

Did you have a favorite lab you applied to? And how did you ultimately end up choosing?

There were several great people. Ultimately it came down to the cities because there were two really great labs doing similar projects. The professors were both great and the other students were both great, so it came down to the city that I felt more comfortable in.

How did you keep up to date with the latest trends and projects in Astrophysics?

In that realm of groups who work on things like space telescopes or large ground-based or balloon borne telescopes, there aren’t that many people. There’s a website called the Archive and it posts a lot of papers for free. There are different threads, with one for astronomy and cosmology, and if you just follow over time, you’ll realize the same names come up over and over.

In the states, there are maybe 20 big labs that are able to participate in these larger physical experiments. It’s expensive, especially working on the hardware, and all of this comes at a cost so they need to get grants in order to do that kind of research. Then there are many other groups and professors including a couple of larger groups that are associated with the larger universities. There are also some smaller institutions working more on the analysis or theory, things that don’t require as much money.

These things are very specialized and once you get into that network you realize there are specific groups that are experts at different processes. For instance, there’s a group in Cardiff that has expertise in making lenses out of a particular material for doing observations in microwave wavelengths. That’s a very specific niche, but if you’re going to build a telescope at those wavelengths, that’s who you go to for your lenses. There’s usually only one or two vendors for particular things, and people get known for what they’re good at.

One of the big places that works on fabricating detectors and that has foundries is the jet propulsion laboratory at NASA. They’re involved in a lot of these projects and they help fabricate things. Then you’ve got places like the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), in Colorado where a lot of people work and do research. Some of those people also work on developing new types of detectors.

What’s your favorite space observatory? And is there one you’d like to visit some day?

I worked on a telescope during my grad school years that was in the Atacama Desert of Chile in the Andes Mountains. With most ground based telescopes you want to put them in places that are high, but also very dry because water vapor in the atmosphere will steal some of the signal that’s coming in, while also emitting noise in the same wavelengths. You wanna try to get above as much of the water vapor as possible. That was really cool. There were lots of interesting animals in the desert there. We got to discover new galaxies and clusters of galaxies and it was incredibly interesting.

Then I did some follow-up observations on a radio telescope in Australia called ATCA, in a town called Narrabri, about 500 kilometers northwest of Sydney. It was an array of telescopes that were on railroad train tracks so when they would reconfigure the telescopes, which they did while I was there, you could ride on the telescope as it was moving. There were kangaroos jumping along the side, it was really neat. Sometimes astronomy can take you to very remote, interesting places.

I also worked on some balloon-borne telescopes, which I found very interesting. Obviously you can’t go up into the atmosphere or above the atmosphere, but I found those experiments very interesting because you’re not doing a full space based mission. You’re just going up in this huge weather balloon. Typically those are launched from the north or the south poles because the winds are circumpolar and they just will circle the pole for about a week or two before they come down.

There is one place that I haven’t gotten to go. There are telescopes down at the South Pole. Most people don’t think of the South Pole as a very dry place, but it is, and they have telescopes down there. I would love to go down and see some of them.

Can you tell us about your time as a postdoc at Caltech, UC Santa Barbara, and the Keck Institute for Space Studies? What were some key achievements?

I specifically chose to work with a professor at UC Santa Barbara based on work that he and others had done at Caltech on this new type of detector for astrophysics that they were developing called a Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detector. Prior to that, the detectors that were being used in Hubble and others would consist of an array of detectors that you’d put a filter in front of. If you wanted to know if the light is red, you would have to put a red filter in front of it.

That means you’re throwing away many of the photons that are coming in. When you’re studying things like galaxies that are billions of light years away, there aren’t many photons coming to you in the first place. It was really wasteful. These microwave kinetic inductance detectors took in every single photon that landed. You could tell what their wavelength or color energy was, and you could detect all the individual photons within a certain wavelength range.

A lot of people don’t realize how long it takes to build up a solid signal from a faraway galaxy, and how long you might have to wait to collect the light until you get a good enough signal coming out of the noise. The older astronomers were so patient.

As we develop these new types of more efficient systems, we’re able to collect a lot more data more quickly, and that’s allowing us to quickly map out huge swaths of the sky relatively quickly, over years instead of decades.

What was the transition like from academia to the private sector?

It was a tough decision. I was a postdoc, which is a sort of proto professor, and I was looking around and evaluating whether or not I wanted to really make that push and be a professor and stay in academia. I decided that what professors do wasn’t interesting to me for the most part, so I decided to go and try out the private sector.

In terms of the benefits, I really liked my experience, both in larger as well as smaller industrial companies. Startups are cool because you have the combined resources of the equivalent of several labs altogether. In a group you might have 20 postdocs and you can move really fast and get things done. With larger companies, what I liked is that they have the bandwidth to develop people and optimize for good company culture, which has been shown to increase productivity and revenue by quite a lot.

That is something that is not appreciated enough today, but it also benefits employers a lot. Startups are constantly just trying to stay afloat so they don’t have as much ability to focus on those kinds of things. When you go to places like Google, you might be able to spend 20% of your time working on whatever you want.

There are trade offs. With startups, there’s often this really strong passion and a sense of family and a belief in moving really fast and changing the world. With larger companies, there’s more of a feeling of balance. You’re still doing really useful things, but you also get to work reasonable hours and see your family.

There’s this idea in certain spheres such as academia, or government labs, that you don’t have to worry about selling things. When you’re in industry, it’s about the bottom line and selling things. Although, when you think about it, everything is actually about selling. When you’re writing grant applications, you’re trying to sell yourself, when you’re trying to get good students to come work for you, you’re selling yourself. That’s one skill that I should have developed more when I was younger.

How did you first start your work in quantum computing?

When I was leaving academia I had to go through a period of research to understand what somebody who coming from astrophysics can do in the world and what my skills were relevant for. I thought about the companies doing work in the space sphere, or with satellites, or which make use of optics. I also thought I might be interested working in energy, or quantum computing. So, I made a big list of companies and I applied to a whole bunch of different things. 

Quantum computing was still pretty nascent back then in 2013. One of the companies that I applied to was D-Wave. They were looking for ultimately a physicist, but at the time they had just hired somebody with the same skillset. Then I got a different job offered and followed that other path. A couple of years later D-Wave headhunted me back. Sometimes you might not get the job, but you don’t realize that when the time is right, they might come back to you. 

They were looking for physicists, particularly with good communication skills that had  experience with superconducting circuits and cryogenics and things that were relevant to quantum computing. But they were specifically looking for somebody who could be a technical project manager within that group of physicists and organize things and interface clients. So that’s how I wound up in quantum computing and it was very exciting.

What is the state of quantum computing today? And where is it going? 

Quantum computing today is where Machine Learning and AI were 10 plus years ago. It’s still very much nascent. In terms of actual physical quantum computers, what’s available now in the cloud are still very much prototypes. Different companies are using different types of qubits, so they’re based on different physical systems. Some qubits are based on the spin of an electron. Some are based on a loop of superconducting wire with particles going around the loop of wire.There are other systems where they’ve taken ions and they’ve trapped them using lasers. There’s still not a consensus as to what the best qubit is. We’re still very much in the experimental phase.

What’s on a little more sure footing are these algorithms that exist already that we know will exponentially improve upon what classical computers do. One of them involves solving linear systems of equations, which show up in many places in the real world. The other one is called Shor’s algorithm, which will break a lot of the encryption that we currently use to protect our healthcare data, financial data, etcetera.

NIST ran a challenge to discover new types of encryption that will be secure against quantum computers. They’ve finished that and published these new encryption schemes, so there’s a lot of work now going into upgrading software to incorporate these kinds of encryption to be secure against future quantum computers when they come fully online.

Then there are all these other techniques that we’re going to be using. In terms of quantum sensing, we’ll be better able to measure magnetic fields. A study that came out recently was looking at using these types of sensors for monitoring your position on the earth without the need for communication with satellites. There are also ways to make use of techniques within quantum mechanics to secure communications along fiber optic cables. There’s something called quantum key distribution, which is being explored so that our internet system will be more secure in the future.

It’s still early days. We don’t understand how to think quantum mechanically. We still think very much in the way that classical computers do. To fully harness quantum computing we will ultimately have to get better at thinking quantum mechanically.

What is the importance of science and quantum computing in enacting social change?

When is comes to things like policy, sustainability, homelessness, and the safety of children, one theme amongst a lot of these topics is that currently they aren’t economically incentivized. The jobs that pay the most aren’t at companies that are looking to end homelessness, or stop the trafficking of people. Social workers are typically overworked and underpaid.

How do we change that paradigm? I think that requires policy and government intervention but also realizing that there’s an economic case to be made. Just like with good company culture, we should study that more and come up with KPIs that can be tracked. Until you’re really studying the problem, you’re not going to be able to solve the problem.

There has a strong initiative across the globe, with many countries investing heavily in quantum computing. We could do the same with these other areas. There are initiatives around trying to marry things like machine learning and climate change, or AI and climate change, or quantum computing and climate change. We could do the same thing where we marry some of these new technologies to funding initiatives for these kinds of problems.

Do you have any advice for women and historically excluded technologists looking to get into any of these areas of tech?

There’s a lack of people who are trained in quantum computing, and there are huge funding initiatives to invest in the space. That provides an opportunity for people to get involved.

People automatically think about students, but I actually think that we’re overlooking older folks who could be retrained easily. Just like there are code bootcamps, I would love to see bootcamps for things like microwave electronics, or for people who have worked on microwave electronics and other domains of industry. It wouldn’t take too much to retool them to work in this new up and coming field because they have that background knowledge of working with the hardware or working in the industry.

It’s never too late. I constantly hear great stories about people who switched careers in their 40’s or 50’s. If it’s something that you’re interested in, definitely go for it. Know your own potential, but if someone’s really excited to have you work with for them, don’t overlook that. Maybe in time it will all become more clear to you whether or not that’s your place.

People in positions of privilege inside this field or in other fields should look outside the box to see potential. A lot of companies will just post jobs on their own website. That will  typically filter to their network of people who already work there. So if the people who are already working there don’t represent the demographic that you’re looking to transition to, then maybe you need to think about posting the job in other places that will reach a more diverse range of people, like the Women Who Code job board. There are of course other women in tech groups too.

Diversity of thought ultimately rewards companies. It’s been shown that groups are better at problem solving when you have people who get to the same right answer, but come about it in very different ways.

Also, I’ve been on both sides of this and people are generally very excited when somebody is very excited about what they do and to work with them. I’ve never applied somewhere where I hadn’t already spoken to somebody, and done some research about what they do, and been excited about it. A lot of people are pretty open to being cold called and messaged. You can say, “I did some research and I found your company and you work on this thing, and I read this article about it and it’s so exciting. How do I get involved? Can I have a few minutes of your time?” I can’t remember anybody who’s ever said no to that.

If you’re just blanketing various companies you’re operating from a place of fear rather than a place of excitement. Take a moment to check in and take a step back and ask yourself what you are really looking for. Then focus in on that. Find the people, talk to them, find the companies and be a little more targeted.

People hate the word networking, but just forming connections with other humans can plant seeds that may take years to grow, but sometimes they flower at times and places that you weren’t expecting and provide wonderful opportunities, just because you had a natural connection with somebody. 

A connection can form from something as simple as two people liking the cookies at a booth, and then a friendship can grow and years later end up providing an opportunity for one of us, or both of us. Just going with the flow, following your nose and your natural inclination towards a type of work or a company or people, that’s always going to put you in the right direction.

Finding companies that value people like you is also important. When I was younger, I didn’t really think about this, but I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I do well when I am praised for doing well. If I only ever hear criticism when I do things not as well and I don’t really get any praise when I do things well, then that’s not a paradigm that works for me. Knowing those things about yourself will allow you to find a boss that fulfills your needs. 

For coders who are interested in quantum computing, what are some programming languages that you and your teams use that could be considered transferable skills into these projects/spaces? 

Python is extremely common. There are multiple platforms where one can go and program quantum computers. IBM has a platform called Qiskit, It’s Python based. There might be other versions of it, but I know for sure we typically are using the Python or Pythonesque implementations. D-Wave has an SDK called Ocean which is also Python, but they may have versions in other languages as well, but I know it’s available in Python. Python’s a relatively easy language to learn and If you already know C or Java, it’s relatively easy to pick up.

What made you decide to apply to be an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency in 2016?

In 2008 the Canadian Space Agency put a call out for astronaut recruitment and a friend mentioned it to me. I actually realized that I would qualify once I was done with my PhD. In 2016 when they did their next recruitment search I was in a place in my life that it made sense for me and my family and I thought, “why not?”

At that point the Canadian astronauts were living in the US and working primarily with the American astronauts but the only shuttles that were going up to space were in Russia so they spent half their year in Russia. It was very demanding in terms of lifestyle. But at that time there still hadn’t been any female astronauts and it appealed to me to think I could be the first as well.

There are definitely more women and other minorities now, so we’re getting there, but as recently as 2019 the European Space Agency did a selection round and it was the first time that disabled people were actually able to apply. We’re moving towards enabling more people to fulfill their passions. Ultimately I got to the top 100 out of 3500 candidates and was weeded out at that point.

Now I’m in a place in my life where it doesn’t really make sense to live such an adventurous lifestyle. But but it’s still very interesting and now there are a lot of initiatives to build a base on the moon. They’re decommissioning the International Space Station and, building a new deep space gateway that will orbit the moon. What’s coming up now are challenges in physiology. That’s what’s blocking us from going too much further. Our bodies are not that well suited to space and how we’re going to overcome that is probably the biggest hurdle for space exploration.

In 2013 when I was leaving academia and exploring different companies I applied to SpaceX as one of the companies and I remember looking at the job postings and seeing at the time that there was a position for a Spacesuit designer.

Do you have a favorite space-related film or TV show?

My favorite movie is Arrival which is about Aliens coming to Earth and attempting to communicate with us. It revolves around the story of a linguist and her attempt to communicate with them. I love a lot of the media that happens in space but oftentimes I find I do have to turn off my physics brain because so often things aren’t quite right. It’s not easy to try to come up with a visualization for the inside of a black hole or, what a white hole might look like because it’s completely theoretical, but it certainly doesn’t look like a library with a bunch of books. 

In the spirit of WWCode’s #ApplaudHer & Technologists to Watch, do you have someone you would like to #Applaud and highlight for their contributions?Yes, Aggie Branczyk. She’s a Senior Research Scientist on the Quantum Computational Science team at IBM Quantum. She’s great at disseminating information about all things quantum via platforms such as LinkedIn, and has helped open the field of quantum for more women and minorities.


Guest: Danica Marsden, Principal Quantum Computing Scientist, Bank of Canada
Host: Eliza Sarobhasa, CTO at Women Who Drone and Leadership Fellow at Women Who Code Python
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, WWCode