After spending a long time on my PhD projects during the past year, I wanted to break away from them and work on something new. That’s why I applied to the Los Alamos Quantum Computer Summer School (I’ll call it QCSS now). The summer school was in its fourth edition, and was virtual like the one last year.
First, some preliminaries. Despite the name, QCSS is not really a summer school. It’s closer to a research internship. It’s ten weeks long, and during that time you work on projects with the other students and your mentor. The goal of QCSS is to get a paper out of the project. In fact, the goal is often to finish the project during those ten weeks, so QCSS can be quite intense. There are a few lectures in the first weeks, but QCSS isn’t for teaching quantum computing. The lectures are by researchers on the latest in quantum research, so people are expected to know the basics.
QCSS is composed of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, professors, and others researchers. It’s also paid, which is a nice bonus.
The program is competitive. I first applied to QCSS just after finishing my master’s degree last year, and got rejected. I reapplied this year and got in, so for those that apply, don’t stop if you’re rejected the first time!
My goal with this essay is much like my PSIon essay: explain the program for students who want to apply. There’s a shortage of blog posts out there for QCSS (particularly since its only in its fourth year), so I’ll fill the gap.
My experience was virtual, so I didn’t go to Los Alamos. Keep that in mind when you read.
With that, let’s jump in.
QCSS is all about projects. Each person gets one project, but can join multiple if they want. In my case, I chose to focus on one project. I’m already suffering from project overload with my PhD projects, so I didn’t want to add ten more things. I know others who dabbled with a bunch. It’s really up to you.
You can suggest a project, or your mentor will suggest one. I landed in the latter case. I didn’t know what I wanted to do this summer, and was happy to jump into a new project. The mentors of QCSS choose the students based off their potential and their skills. The latter is important for project choice. I wrote on my application that I knew about tensor networks and how to code them. I’m pretty certain this led to the project I worked on. I had specific expertise that my mentor was looking for.
Some projects are long, while others are shorter. There’s also a big difference in the number of people working on them. Most projects have a few people, though some are more. My project had two mentors and two students, which was nice because I got to ask a bunch of questions and get help while building the code for the project.
In terms of project topics, they span the gamut of quantum computing. Some deal with quantum machine learning, some are more mathematical, some deal with physical systems, and others are on optimization. If you look at the link above for QCSS, you will see some of the projects in previous years.
Each student has a mentor, assigned at the beginning of the summer school. They make sure you have everything you need, and help advise on the projects.
I didn’t have a lot of mentoring in the sense of one-on-one meetings outside of the project. That was fine with me, since I didn’t ask for it. The extent of mentoring probably depends on who you have as a mentor as well. That being said, my mentor was great in that they answered any question I threw at them, so I was happy with that.
Everyone is happy to discuss all things quantum. If there’s one thing I regret, it’s not discussing more with the mentors during the summer.
This edition of QCSS has twenty-six students. We didn’t have the bonding activities that I imagine occurred during in-person editions, but we all kept touch in the Slack channels. Every project was open, letting us see what others were working on.
My conversations with the other students were always positive. There were a few “coffee break” sessions where we grouped up to have virtual meetings. These were a little awkward (as I’ve found most social gatherings online are), but everyone I talked to was lovely.
I also loved how diverse our collective expertise was. Some students knew a ton of algebra and mathematics. Others thought a lot about optimization and machine learning. Some liked working on analytical problems, while others (like myself) worked on computational problems.
With QCSS, I appreciated how we all have different and complementary skills. Everything helps in making a project move along. It’s not just about knowing all the theory. That’s why we do research: to learn and build off each other’s strengths.
The ten weeks went by fast. After taking a bit of time to understand what was going on in my project, I spent the rest of QCSS trying to push forward in it. I’ll tell you about what I worked on in a future essay.
I met some great people, both within my project and within the whole school. As a new (now, a year old!) PhD student in quantum computing, I will meet these people over and over again during the upcoming years. It’s good to start mingling within these social circles. After all, science is a human activity.
Because QCSS was virtual, asynchronous work ruled. This was fine for me, because my time zone is only two hours ahead of Los Alamos. However, those in Europe and Asia were in a trickier situation. This also meant learning to work with people from multiple time zones, which is a skill we’re going to need much more going forward, I suspect.
If you’re looking to apply to QCSS, my advice is simple: make your application highlight your specific skills. If you know how to code, say that. If you are amazing with group theory, say that. You never know what will be needed for the next edition of QCSS, and this will help you application.
I want to thank my mentor Lukasz Cincio, as well as the others who worked on my project: Tameem Albash, Matías Jonsson, and Martin Larocca. Also, thank you to the other leaders of the summer school: Patrick Coles, Daniel O’Malley, and Yigit Subasi.