Zahra Khanian | Meet the MCQSTians: in this series, we regularly feature members of the MCQST community.
“Just keep thinking”
Zahra Baghali Khanian is an MCQST Distinguished Postdoc working in the group of Robert König. We invited her to talk about her current research, what made her want to become a scientist, and the advice she’d give to people just starting their research careers.
Can you briefly explain your research project?
To explain for a general audience: If we talk about information classically, we have a bunch of zeros and ones, for example in a normal computer zeros and ones are coded in electrical signals, and we may want to store them or send them somewhere. To process such classical information, one needs to understand how data is processed for example by electrical signals. But in a quantum computer, the information is coded in small particles, called qubits, and the behavior of particles are described by quantum mechanics. One of the things that I did in my PhD was, supposing there is a quantum source that produces a lot of data, I wanted to be able to reduce its volume as much as possible– to compress that data. To do that, the data needs to have a lot of redundancy. We worked to remove that redundancy by designing specific operations on qubits. Classically, these operations are functions that map the input data to other data in a smaller subset. But in quantum, the operations are specific maps ruled by the laws of quantum mechanics, called “completely positive trace-preserving operations”, that allow us to compress quantum information.
Describe your day-to-day work. What keeps you excited to keep working on your project each day?
I would say it’s not exactly the same every day, but I hold specific rules for myself that I try to follow. For example, if I’m writing a paper I have one kind of schedule, but if I need to spend time thinking about a problem, I have a different kind of schedule. So every day is different! If I ever get stuck, I like to go on long walks to figure things out.
I always wanted to be a scientist, even since childhood. I’ve always been fascinated by trying to understand new things and how they work, especially in mathematics. I think that everybody who works in science has some bigger-picture goal or motivation that keeps them going. Sometimes we may forget about that, but I think that’s always the main motive. Day-to-day, my motivations can be very different. Some days I might be very happy just to finish something or to have found a new solution. But above all, I just really enjoy doing science – that’s my whole way of living. I don’t separate my life from doing science.
What inspired you to become a quantum scientist?
When I was very little, my parents were students at the university, so they were studying all the time. I was an only child, so I wanted to keep up with them by reading books and learning as much as possible. I would always listen to their conversations with their friends at the university. That’s what made me love school. I actually loved every single subject, and in middle school I realized that I really liked math and science in general. But scientist is a big term – it carries a lot of weight. I would call myself a researcher. I am just at the beginning of my career, so I look at my research problems as exercises that I do in order to grasp a bigger picture and understanding of what is happening in the field.
What drew you to Munich (and MCQST)?
I did my PhD in Barcelona, and I knew Munich was one of the biggest hubs for quantum science in Europe. There are so many groups and opportunities here. My host group is working in quantum information and computing, and I really wanted to do this kind of work in my postdoc. I learned about the Distinguished Postdoc fellowship because someone in my group already had it [Angela Capel], so that’s how I learned about this fellowship.
What was your most memorable moment or proudest achievement in your research at MCQST thus far?
I often get very excited more about achieving an understanding of what is going on and why things work the way they work rather than obtaining a specific result. But I was recently trying to prove some strong converse properties for compression problems, and I was really happy to figure that out.
Outside of science, what do you enjoy doing most?
I usually spend time with friends or I go out walking. I don’t enjoy a “virtual life” that much– just being on the internet or watching movies at home. I prefer to spend time with friends and family.
What advice would you give to someone at the beginning of their physics career?
Starting a scientific career is a very long-term commitment, which means you need to work daily to reach your long-term goals and solve the problems you’re working on. You don’t just wake up one day and think of the solution to something. In order to have an idea, you have to be thinking about the problem for a long time and let it sit in your mind. So even when you’re not getting many results, it’s important just to keep working and thinking.
I would advise someone just starting to think about what their daily schedule needs to look like, and also to pay attention to how you work. When I started my PhD, I read a couple of books, one of them was Deep Work by Cal Newport, and I found this really helpful in figuring out what I need to do every day in order to achieve my long-term goals.
What kind of support do you think is important for early career scientists to have?
I think it’s really helpful to be in a productive environment, which means choosing a group or collaborating with people elsewhere that you think will suit you, having collaborators or mentors that you can reach out to them to discuss your thoughts and concerns.
Other than that, it’s good to have support programs like the ones MCQST has, for example for women in science. But such programs are more occasional; that’s why I think it’s most helpful to have the right people that you can have access to when you need them.