I'm A Girl Who Codes





Sarah Sheldon: Quantum Physicist, Baker, Gardener & #GirlBoss


“Good work does speak for itself, and so does determination. Don’t give up and don’t be afraid to ask for help” ~Sarah Sheldon

Meet Sarah Sheldon a 29 year-old quantum physicist at IBM. Through her impressive work in , Sarah is doing groundbreaking research in a sector of tech that blends computer science and physics. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, gardening and reading as a means of experimenting and broadening her world view. This #GirlBoss is also a big advocate for female mentorship and encouragement within the workplace because you cannot be what you cannot see. Inspired yet? We are!

Q&A with Sarah Sheldon:

What is your job at IBM?

I’m an IBM Research staff member in the experimental quantum computing group. Our group is studying quantum computing using superconducting circuits. I work on improving the techniques we use for controlling the state of quantum bits on our devices.

Were you always interested in computers?

I was always interested in research, math, and physics especially. For me, computers and coding have been the essential tools for running experiments and learning about science and nature.

What were some of your other interests growing up?

I participated in a lot of activities growing up: playing piano, taking dance lessons, running track, and volunteering. Outside of school and organized activities, I was always an avid reader and loved to bake.

Do you think that those interests informed what you do now, and have helped you as a quantum physicist?

I just loved learning about the world and I explored that in many different ways. Reading, of course, fosters knowledge and can change your perspective on the world. My love of baking was not only the result of my sweet tooth, but also a way to experiment and see chemistry in action. Any activity that makes you think, helps you learn something new, or develops your world view will benefit you as a scientist, engineer, programmer, and problem-solver.

Is coding creative? How?

Coding is definitely creative. There is no single way to write any code, and everyone has their own style. Part of coding is design, thinking about how to approach the problem before you write a single line, and you can create clean or efficient or even elegant code.

What is the most exciting thing about your job? What is the thing that makes you lose track of time when you are working? 

Sometimes I’m just amazed at what we can do in our lab - we make quantum devices, macroscopic quantum bits (qubits) that you can see with your eye, and we can manipulate their state to a high level of precision. Related to my own quantum work, one particular exciting thing I have been a part of recently is the launch of the IBM Quantum Experience, which is the world’s first quantum computing platform. IBM released it in May of this year. It’s delivered via the IBM Cloud and offers students, researchers, and general science enthusiasts’ hands-on access to an actual five-qubit device in our lab. Those users can run algorithms and experiments, work with qubits, and explore tutorials and simulations around what might be possible with quantum computing. It has been really fun to get feedback from the public and specifically to work with students who are interested in understanding quantum computing and what we can do with it.

What is the thing most people don’t realize about what you do?

I don’t think people realize when we talk about a quantum processor, we mean a quantum device that we can manipulate with classical computing control knobs. We program instruments with standard computing software and interact with the quantum bits through classical control fields. All the quantumness is on the chip that is surrounded by a huge amount of infrastructure necessary for cooling, controlling, and measuring the device.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Experimental physics can be challenging and there are moments when it gets frustrating. Experiments often do not work the way you expect, and you struggle to figure out why. This kind of work often takes long periods of troubleshooting, debugging, problem-solving, and brief happy moments of success until you hit the next problem! The pressure of needing to get results is what makes my job hard. So, it’s important to not get frustrated, stick to the scientific method, and gather as much information as possible. Solving tough problems like this is also the fun part!

What would you love to see your work achieve?

My dream is that the work that I do and the work that my team does proves that fault tolerant quantum computing is achievable. It is a field where the ultimate goal of building a universal quantum computer is a long way off, and I would love to show that there is a quantum advantage for problems that are unsolvable today on classical computers. There are many potential applications, and I believe there is so much to explore in this new computing paradigm. I recently worked with students at the Institute for Quantum Computing’s Undergraduate School for Experimental Quantum Information Processing in Waterloo, who were testing out the algorithms they were learning in the classroom. They were able to run quantum codes such as Grover’s search algorithm and error correction protocols on our 5-qubit quantum processor. I am so excited to see the field grow and develop new tools for students and others to get hands-on experience with quantum computing.

What have been the biggest lessons learned in your career? 

The most valuable lesson for me to learn was how to ask for help. It’s OK to not know something! Asking lots of questions and asking for help is the best way to learn and acquire new skills. I am very fortunate to work in a team where this approach goes without saying.

Did you ever encounter people who discouraged you from your path because you are female?

I have been very fortunate to have had many teachers and mentors - especially female mentors- in addition to my parents who always encouraged me to pursue my goals. The women I have worked with who were a generation or two older than I have stories of being pushed aside for men, and I am so thankful that they persevered. Many of the ways women are discouraged from participating in science and technology today is more subtle. It can be disheartening to be one of very few, and often times the only, woman in an advanced physics class or in a lab group, and as a result it can be harder to find mentors and peers who will support you as a woman.

How did you overcome feeling disheartened? 

My advice to girls is to build up your own confidence. Good work does speak for itself, and so does determination. It’s really helpful to have support from people you can learn from and who can help you grow. Seek out mentors, especially female mentors who understand the unique challenges that women face.

What would you say to a girl who thinks coding is not for her?

There are so many ways you can use coding, you might be surprised by how much you can accomplish with a little knowledge of how to code. You can write code to design websites, control the light switch in your apartment, make games and movies, study science, and solve complex problems.

What are 5 pieces of technology you rely on each and every day?

  1. Desktop computer
  2. : A computing environment and programming language
  3. : A programming language

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