Early in her career, Michelle Simmons AO was often asked a particular question.
“Oh, you study physics,” someone would say. “Isn’t everything already settled?”
“I remember thinking, ‘We hardly know anything,’” she says.
“We know such a small part of the world.”
Professor Simmons has dedicated his career to expanding this understanding.
As one of the world’s leading quantum physicists, she spent decades at the forefront of scientific discovery, pioneering the development of atomic-scale electrical components and founding Australia’s first quantum computing company .
She received the 2023 Prime Minister’s Science Prize this week and will soon deliver a series of lectures for the ABC Boyer Lecture Series.
But no honor she has received – and there have been many, including 2018 Australian of the Year – can match the thrill of a new discovery.
“When you understand something for the first time, even from primary school… it’s like an adrenaline rush,” says Professor Simmons.
“All my life I have always looked for where the most difficult challenge is, what is the most difficult conceptual thing to achieve, something on the edge of possibility.
“I love this advantage.”
The next frontier is in sight but, for now, simply out of reach: a quantum computer, capable of solving complex problems exponentially faster than conventional computers.
But for Professor Simmons, there is joy in the pursuit.
Find your purpose
Michelle Simmons, 56, grew up in London with her mother, a bank manager, and her father, a police officer.
Her father encouraged her to play chess and even hoped she would make a career out of it.
But during the tournaments, something was missing.
“A lot of people I played with were completely obsessed with the game… (but) I just didn’t see it as my whole life,” she says.
“I realized very early on that to achieve something, you had to give it your all.”
And she wanted to direct her passion elsewhere.
“I had a very good physics teacher and I remember realizing that I could understand the world mathematically,” Professor Simmons says.
“Everything fell into place.”
After school, she embarked on a double degree in physics and chemistry at Durham University., located in the north of England.
She then did a PhD in solar cell technology, where she did everything from creating the crystals inside the cells to testing and analyzing her results.
“(I’ve) had joy across the spectrum,” she says.
“I realized at that moment that if I had a career, I would want to be able to do everything. I wouldn’t want to limit myself to just one field.”
However, after completing his Ph.D., she joined a research team of 80 at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, where she found herself at the bottom of a significant hierarchy.
“I came in as someone who could make and build devices, and at that time the top level was the theoretician, then the experimental measurements and the one making them at the bottom,” she says.
“That’s when I really first saw the concept of people boxing me in a certain area. And I remember thinking: ‘I can do all this‘“.
So she set off.
Professor Simmons spent her evenings and weekends alone in the lab, working on other parts of her team’s project and wondering about problems.
“I have a fundamental belief that you have to learn something yourself if you want to learn it deeply,” she says.
“It’s like a musical instrument: you have to continue to do these hours of learning.”
Australia, a “technological power”
After working for seven years as a quantum electronics researcher at Cavendish, Professor Simmons left the UK to pursue a new challenge.
“I remember thinking that in England it’s pretty safe; I’m in a good institution, I can do very well,” she says.
But she wanted more than security. She wanted “academic freedom”.
The United States was very competitive and “not very collegial,” so, in a decision that surprised some of her peers, she set her sights on Australia.
She saw it as a country where ambition went hand in hand with an enthusiastic mentality and a cheerful character.
“It was an opportunity to pursue something very ambitious with a group of people who wanted to get started in a positive environment,” she says.
“To this day, I honestly believe I couldn’t have done what I did here anywhere else…I tell young people, really, there’s nowhere better.”
She moved to Sydney in 1999 and went on a speaking tour of academic institutions around the country, where she discovered an astonishing community of scientific minds.
“I asked myself, ‘Why doesn’t the rest of the world know about it?'” she says.
“I think it’s partly cultural; Australians don’t like to talk about what they do… (But) we have to support each other, believe each other and celebrate each other because it’s really incredible what is happening in Australia.
“It’s the new technology powerhouse of the future.”
The power of a good team
In the same year, Professor Simmons joined the University of New South Wales (UNSW), where she is now Director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Quantum Computing and Communication Technologies.
She leads a diverse team with eight different skill sets, ranging from engineers to mathematicians.
“I realized relatively early in my career that as an individual, you can only do so much and that in reality, you are quite limited as an individual to be able to do something truly transformational.” , she says.
“So figuring out how to work as a team and how to tap into everyone’s unique skills, and then do it in a way that everyone has fun – that’s my pipe dream now.”
Although some might imagine the scientific process to be incremental and technical, Professor Simmons says creativity is essential to innovate.
“People don’t think that scientists are creative. I think they’re the most creative people because you don’t know until you get there how it’s going to work, and there are multiple ways you can borrow,” she said.
She is not afraid of obstacles in her path.
“When I came (to UNSW) we presented this eight-point plan, and someone from IBM said, ‘Yeah, great, but none of them have been achieved and the chances are “that they are (realized) are zero.” ” she said.
“And I thought, ‘Well, how do I know if no one has ever done it?’
“I really like it when people write down all the reasons why our stuff doesn’t work. It’s like a challenge.”
Talking to the next generation
Professor Simmons is passionate about engaging young people – particularly women – in science.
“(Young people) will gain a level of knowledge from watching and reading (online) that we’ve never had access to,” she says.
“We need to continue to challenge them. They learn earlier and differently than we do, and there are huge opportunities to make them successful.”
Through his company, Silicon Quantum Computing, based at UNSW, Professor Simmons encourages students to learn from career scientists and see how their studies can impact the real world, which, according to her, can be a “game changer”.
She would also like to see school-aged children and their teachers work with universities to help students plan for their future careers and understand the importance of making mistakes.
“As a scientist, you have to make mistakes to learn,” she explains.
“I always try to get a lot of young girls to understand that it’s a positive thing (and) that you shouldn’t be afraid to do it.
“The joy and reward of being a scientist and working as a team, it’s so amazing, so I really don’t want them to miss out.”
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