Ask me anything: Michelle Simmons
Michelle Simmons is director of the Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the University of New South Wales, Australia. A pioneer in atomic-scale silicon devices, she has built the world’s smallest transistor, the narrowest conducting wires, 3D atomic electronics and the first two-qubit silicon gate. In 2018 Simmons was named Australian of the Year.
What skills do you use every day in your job?
There are skills and traits and the most important trait is optimism. Research is hard and so every time you come into the lab you have to maintain an optimistic persona. Also I’ve found it helps to be generally hard working and deep thinking. In terms of practical skills, it is important to be able to sift through lots of information and get to the heart of an issue quickly, while maintaining focus. I’ve also found it’s vital to be able design and build things – whether building a piece of apparatus, going into a clean room to make a device, or having the ability to design something from scratch.
What do you like best and least about your job?
The thing I like doing best is understanding things and doing that in a forum where I have actually read a lot first myself and have open questions that I can brainstorm with people in my team. Another experience you can’t beat is getting data from a device and then trying to understand it for the first time. That process of not understanding something and then finally nailing it, which can take up to two, three or four years, beats pretty much most experiences in life. I also like building teams – bringing together lots of different skill sets and techniques and then training people to learn those skill sets so we can be in control of our destiny. Executing an experiment in a really good way and then brainstorming it in the end, that’s unbeatable. The worst thing is the admin and bureaucracy. Everything’s online these days and filling in the endless forms gets in the way of the good stuff.
What do you know today, that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?
I wish I had known to trust my instincts more. Everyone has a gut feeling and it’s there for a reason, but you need to push that to the end to find out if it’s real or not. I also used to think that when you’re designing, building or testing things you need to have clear space – that you would need to have large blocks of time to do that. But now I’ve learned that every minute of the day matters and you can fit things in if you try – I’ve become more and more efficient the older I get. I also wish I had known how important programming was going to be. For my generation, programming was still something new but being able to programme well and do statistical analysis are two skills that are vital for the future, which will be a data-driven world.