Quantum technology may be key to unlocking new opportunities, not only in scientific disciplines, but also in the effort to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce. 

With this overarching goal, faculty members from Virginia Tech partnered with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for a five-day quantum workshop, Aug. 8-12, at the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington.

With support from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia, the workshop was the result of a joint effort between Virginia Tech, Virginia State University (VSU), Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), and Texas Southern University to address the stagnation of diverse representation in the STEM workforce, particularly among Black and Latinx workers.

“When you look at the diversity in STEM data, you can see that there hasn’t been significant progress in 30 years,” said Wayne Scales, the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Diversity and inclusivity programs for students are critical, but the next step has to more aggressively involve faculty members.”

Scales and his colleagues developed a new strategy: provide faculty members with the tools they need to teach their students about the emerging field of quantum information sciences and engineering and provide infrastructure for advancing a research agenda in the field.

Pipeline of talent, new line of research

“We hope to create new opportunities for Virginia State University students to participate in Virginia Tech’s hands-on lab activities to help train the next generation of quantum computer/communication engineers,” said Thomas Redpath, VSU assistant professor of chemistry and physics. “This endeavor has the potential to benefit other colleges and universities in Virginia and across the nation by providing a space for collaboration between academia and industry.”

Preparing students to succeed in a new STEM field is the first priority, said Mohamed Chouikha, PVAMU professor of electrical and computer engineering who contributed to a National Science Foundation proposal to build quantum research and educational infrastructure in partnership with Virginia Tech. “We also need to be part of the research, but we don’t have the critical mass as far as faculty and infrastructure,” he said. “Virginia Tech is well suited to be our mentor in this effort.”

Scales and his collaborators mustered a small, talented group of faculty members from minority-serving institutions for an intensive five-day boot camp to familiarize them with quantum information science and engineering with linkages to cybersecurity.

Pivoting into quantum

By engaging educators in the evolving discipline of quantum sciences, the partnership has the potential to open new educational and career pathways for students and new research avenues for faculty members.

“There are a lot of research areas on the periphery of quantum, which will be fundamentally impacted in the coming generation,” said Scales, who is also the associate vice provost of research and diversity for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and works on diversity initiatives for the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “This means that many of the researchers from quantum-adjacent fields can pivot in and take on leadership roles.”

For example, quantum systems have properties that provide inherent security in communications with huge implications for cybersecurity.

Workshop speaker Krzysztof Gaj, professor of electrical and computer engineering from George Mason University, shared his own research pivot into quantum. His current field of post-quantum cryptography focuses on developing cryptographic algorithms that are secure against both traditional and quantum computers but can be implemented using conventional computing devices, such as laptops and smartphones.

“The way to pivot this area to the emerging field of quantum science and engineering is to understand that evaluating the security of these algorithms requires the study of quantum attacks, which can be realized only using quantum technology,” said Gaj, who is also a Commonwealth Cyber Initiative researcher for the Northern Virginia node.

The abundance of quantum-adjacent research areas was reflected in the diverse line-up of workshop speakers who represented the expertise and leadership of the quantum information sciences and engineering community at Virginia Tech and among the university’s institutional partners.

Speakers at the workshop included:

Quantum experiential learning

The in-person attendees were joined virtually by participants from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana for an introduction to the fundamentals of quantum technology as well as strategies for experiential learning in a laboratory setting.

“Hands-on laboratory experience is critical for students entering the quantum workforce,” said Scales. “Virginia Tech’s strength is based in hands-on, experiential learning.”

Ravi Raghunathan from electrical and computer engineering walked the participants through the new Quantum Key Distribution test bed at the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington, which uses quantum properties to ensure secure communication between two parties. The participants toured the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative xG testbed architecture for research on secure and intelligent wireless network communications.  

Scales and a team of graduate student researchers also demoed the quantum experiential learning laboratory infrastructure, which they ported up from its home base on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus. Thanks to Virginia Tech Engineering Online, future students will be able to access this hands-on lab virtually — a feature that can be incorporated into the creation of an HBCU quantum research and learning community.

Scales and his collaborators have several additional proposals in the works to replicate the Virginia Tech laboratories, testbeds, and long-term infrastructure at VSU and PVAMU, with access for a greater network of HBCUs and minority-serving institutions.

“A lot of people see quantum as the next great challenge in higher education because it’s so interdisciplinary,” said Scales. “But we see it as a tremendous opportunity, and we’re going to make some great headway.”

Thanks to the inaugural faculty workshop, headway is underway, according to Chouikha from PVAMU.

“I was so impressed with the level of the presentations, the expertise of the presenters, and the facility,” he said. “These five days were such a treasure.”

CCI Southwest Virginia’s investment in quantum research and workforce training continues to encourage diverse teams and diverse approaches through its current call for proposals: Quantum aspects of cybersecurity.

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