Building a career in frontier science

In Episode 6 of TAMG, tech entrepreneur Amrita Chowdhury and her son Shoumik, a student and researcher in quantum computing, talk about the opportunities around cutting-edge tech, and how to spark and consolidate interest in these areas among the young

Founding Fuel

Quantum computing is among the hottest new areas and a frontier science today. And as a 21-year-old, Shoumik Chowdhury sits in the middle of this action, connecting three different worlds—the labs at his New Haven campus at Yale, the charged environment of Rigetti Quantum Computing—a Silicon Valley startup, and The Coding School’s collaboration with IBM, where he is helping develop a course for high school STEM students.

His mom, Amrita Chowdhury, pursued her engineering degree at IIT Kanpur before heading to UC Berkeley for her master's in materials engineering. She holds seven US patents in semiconductor manufacturing. She saw the growth of the semiconductor industry from close quarters as it moved from the lab to commercial applications, and in turn revolutionised the communications and computing industry in the 1990s. And today as an entrepreneur in the deep tech space, she's a close observer of India's approach towards new technologies such as IoT and AI.

In Episode 6 of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation, they discuss three broad areas:

  • The opportunity around tech
  • How to consolidate your interest in these areas
  • How do you spark interest in the sciences

Edited excerpts from their discussion, anchored by Harsh Mall:

The opportunities

Shoumik: Most of the biggest problems in the world—clean energy and climate change design, designing new sustainable materials, artificial intelligence, space travel—all of these are pressing. And they all lie in this realm of the intersection of deep tech and frontier science.

Amrita: Even in our company Gaia, there's a lot that we are doing [on] remote and contactless operations for companies, which is an area of interest in this post-Corona world, and hyperlocal delivery of services. One of the key ingredient technologies underpinning it is AI. That also is one area which has seen a huge uptake right at the moment—around the world, but also especially in India. India is one of the few countries which has an AI policy at the government level and there is a huge amount of funding and institution building that is being thought of and spoken about… And India just announced the budget for quantum.

Shoumik: Other countries are also getting in on it. China, the EU, Canada. There's a huge push and a lot of excitement towards developing quantum science and technology. A lot of people are calling our times the second quantum revolution.

Amrita: What was the first?

Shoumik: The first quantum revolution was actually the initial discovery of the theory of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 30s. The discovery of that physics, in turn led to a host of technical technological advances. It gave us devices like the atomic clock, the laser and the transistor, which led to all of modern electronics and computing, GPS devices… Now, people are trying to harness the power of quantum mechanical systems for information processing. They're developing quantum computers and communication networks. Quantum computers have a lot of promise to be able to solve some fundamental problems in computer science, physics and chemistry… [they could] do vaccine development or simulate drugs at a molecular level…. there's a lot of hype and a lot of promise….

It's a really exciting time to be in quantum at the moment. It’s at this very interesting, pre-commercialization phase, where it’s transitioning out of the lab and into industry… Companies like IBM, Google, Intel, are investing a lot. They all have these big quantum labs.

Amrita: To some extent, it reminds me of my own time in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, when the semiconductor industry was on the rise. That was the time when personal computing was seeing explosive growth and many of the big tech companies that we see today, were just coming into play and coming of age.

Staying with the science—then and now

Shoumik: Why did you leave? You left to do an MBA.

Amrita: I felt a little bit of peer pressure. At that time, the narrative seemed to be that if you did your MBA and worked in the business stream, you might just rise faster.

What do you and your friends see it as—an either - or? Industry versus academia, business versus research?

Shoumik: In quantum specifically, I know that a lot of professors actually run startups on the side. My research advisor at Yale is part of a startup trying to commercialise this technology. So, it's not necessarily a binary choice anymore. There is scope to work between them.

And definitely, maybe not science, but tech is very, very lucrative these days. Look at most of the world's billionaires. A lot of them are from tech—Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg.

You do need the talent. So, how do we, create the interest? And the role teachers, parents and books play

Amrita: From my perspective, as an entrepreneur, when I'm looking to hire a tech team, I do see that talent deficit. There is coding ability. But we need the ability to structure problems, we need people who are lateral thinkers, who are able to connect ideas, taking things from other domains and bring them into what we are doing to solve something.

Shoumik: I subscribe to that working across disciplines. Quantum computing, the field that I'm in, is actually very interdisciplinary. You obviously need some background in quantum physics to get the basics. But you also need computer scientists, electrical engineers to design chips, mechanical engineers, hardware and microwave engineers, to software algorithms design and use cases.

Amrita: One of the things though, that we did not do at IIT was so much of learning by doing. This whole notion of projects and research was a lot more limited back then.

Shoumik: Doing research projects is a fairly common thing. I've worked in three labs now. And I also worked for a year at a startup, balancing that with classes…. I had the very good fortune of being able to work In a quantum computing research lab [at TIFR] at the age of 16. That was a very, very positive experience in my life… just having a mentor to guide me through a project and get me interested in the field. That was really helpful.

Amrita: The Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education at TIFR too is doing so much of advocacy to bring in people at a younger age. Even companies are trying a lot to bring younger people into the domain of technology.

Shoumik: I think companies generally are pretty invested in education. I know Google is now creating its own certificate to replace university courses and whatnot. In quantum computing, specifically, IBM just did a global Summer School, which had 5,000 people around the world sign up and just come to do homework sessions and learn about quantum computing and actually play with the IBM systems on the cloud.

I'm involved with a similar initiative, actually. With a couple of friends at MIT, we're putting together a year-long course—a quantum computing curriculum for high schools.

Amrita: What's critical is that we need more and more resources to attract younger students into the fold of science because there's a certain foundation, an interest that you need at a certain age before you get into that path… The most critical factor in the child's learning outcome is really the quality of teaching and the enthusiasm of the teacher

Shoumik: Besides teachers, you and dad also played a huge role in getting me interested in science. I would read a lot about stuff and then I would just tell you guys and you were willing to listen and where you could, point me in a direction or told me what to read or just kind of have that discussion. Just be interested in what I was interested in. I think that was very helpful for me.

Amrita: There was no internet when I was growing up, but we had Encyclopedia Britannica. In my house, I had access to many, many books, from my father's medical books to my mom's psychology books to a lot of fiction and nonfiction and everything in between.

What happens with reading is that it's important to learn how to synthesise because information is there but what is important is, how do you synthesize it? How do you interlink ideas? It all comes from reading widely.

What's Episode 7 of the show about?

September 5, 2020: Episode 7 of TAMG. At 7.30 pm IST, with mom and daughter Deepa and Rhea Soman. They will discuss working with family. Deepa is the founder and CEO of Lumiere Business Solutions, a boutique research, consulting and design firm with a very distinctive identity and philosophy. Two-and-a-half years ago, Rhea, stepped into Lumiere to kick-start a new design practice. This is their story of how they learned to work together as colleagues, taking Lumiere to the next level.

If you haven’t registered to watch the show already, register here:

Bookmark the series. (The show is supported by a column on Founding Fuel, and an ongoing conversation with the Founding Fuel community on our Slack channel.)

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