A quantum feat: Professor Michelle Simmons named Australian of the Year

UNSW Professor Michelle Simmons named 2018 Australian of the Year in recognition of her research and leadership in the field of quantum computing.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Professor Michelle Simmons from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has been awarded the title of Australian of the Year for 2018.

The title was awarded to Simmons, the director of the UNSW-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday night.

As centre director, Simmons leads a team of more than 200 researchers at eight Australian universities, with her team at CQC2T leading the world in the race to develop a quantum computer in silicon.

"I firmly believe there is no better place to undertake research than in Australia," Simmons said after accepting the award.

There's a big race internationally to build the first quantum computer and Simmons believes Australia can get there first.

The UNSW approach has been to focus on making quantum bits (qubits) out of single atoms of phosphorus or quantum dots in silicon -- the material that forms the basis of today's computer chips.

Simmons and her teams have been reaching for the finish line since 2000, developing their first qubit in 2012.

A team of researchers she led unlocked the key to enabling quantum computer coding in silicon in late 2015, announcing that UNSW had the capability to write and manipulate a quantum version of computer code using two qubits in a silicon microchip.

The breakthrough followed on from an announcement made a month prior when another team of engineers from the university built a quantum logic gate in silicon, which made calculations between two qubits of information possible.

Simmons also launched last year a new company called Silicon Quantum Computing Pty Ltd, which has set itself the target of producing a 10-qubit integrated circuit prototype in silicon by 2022, as the forerunner to a silicon-based quantum computer.

Her Australian of the Year title is another achievement in a long list, having been one of the few Australian academics awarded two Australian Research Council Federation Fellowships, in addition to currently holding a Laureate Fellowship.

She won the Australian Academy of Science's Pawsey Medal in 2005 and the Thomas Ranken Lyle Medal in 2015 for outstanding research in physics, and was elected one of the youngest Fellows of the Academy in 2006.

She was named NSW Scientist of the Year in 2012, and in 2015 she was awarded a Eureka Prize for Leadership in Science.

Simmons received a Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology in 2016, for "the new field of atomic electronics, which she created", and just last month she was honoured as a pioneer in quantum computing by the American Computer Museum, alongside Mark Ritter from IBM.

In 2017 she received a €100,000 international L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award and had the rare distinction for an Australian researcher of becoming an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014.


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