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UMass Lowell Professor Recognized for Innovation

UMass Lowell physics professor Archana Kamal stands in her office in front of a whiteboard covered with formulas and notes. Photo by Lowell Sun/Chris Lisinski
UMass Lowell physics professor Archana Kamal stands in her office in front of a whiteboard covered with formulas and notes. Kamal was recently named to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's list of 35 Innovators Under 35.

Lowell Sun
By Chris Lisinski

LOWELL -- Virtually every inch of the whiteboard in Archana Kamal's office at UMass Lowell is full of handwritten formulas and calculations, so much so that when Kamal stands up to draw an explanatory diagram, she has to erase one section to open up a spot.

The drawing helps when Kamal, a physics professor, has to explain one of the most common challenges in quantum physics and her research about possible solutions for guests who, unlike her, do not hold a Ph.D. It works, too: Kamal's ability to communicate complex topics in an approachable way is immediately apparent.

That research of hers, examining how to build a more effective and efficient information bridge between quantum computers and more ubiquitous traditional computers, has proved so significant in recent years that Kamal was named to the MIT Technology Review's prestigious "35 Innovators Under 35" list last month.

Kamal, the Review notes, "solved a big problem in quantum computing by shrinking the components."

In an interview, Kamal was eager to explain her work and happy to stretch as far back into the principles of quantum mechanics as necessary for the topic to click. The basic idea, she said, is not as complex as those scared off by the word "quantum" might think: in effect, quantum mechanics deal simply with how nature works at the smallest possible level.

Quantum computing, then, attempts to use the fact that those subatomic interactions behave differently than larger processes to power new types of information processing.

Since she was a graduate student, Kamal, now 34, has focused her work on a key question: how do you produce communication between quantum computers and the classical computers we know now when the connection between them is so often messy?

"That information needs to be steered in a faithful manner, and it's a big problem because quantum information is very fragile," Kamal said.

Kamal sets up a metaphor of sound.

When two traditional computers interact, they usually speak to one another in a full voice, but the information produced by a quantum computer is only as loud as a pin drop. Scientists tried for years to put a loudspeaker in place, something that would amplify the quantum computer's voice to a level that could be heard by a traditional computer, but that brought with it another problem: all of the background noise got boosted by the same factor, leaving the quantum signal difficult to interpret.

Her research focused on how to separate out the signal without adding too much noise and on how to prevent signals being boosted from the traditional computer into the quantum environment. In effect, she worked to find the cleanest path for information to travel.

A breakthrough came in recent years at UML, where Kamal leads the university's Quantum Engineering Science and Technology, or QUEST, group. They found a way for that signal to be boosted without the need for bulky magnetic parts as had been the norm. That reduction in size is key, she said.

"You want something that is controllable, but you also don't want a quantum computer that is the size of a building," Kamal said.

Her work landed her in the "Visionaries" category of the MIT Technology Review's list, something that Robert Giles, chairman of UML's Department of Physics and Applied Physics, said validates the university's work.

"It is an honor to have her recognized as a young theorist by the MIT Technology Review, knowing that she is addressing challenges in an extremely competitive area of science," Giles said in an email. "Only the best researchers can seamlessly connect the ideas of quantum computing with existing technologies for creating transitional advances in this field."

Kamal was humble about the recognition. She was pleasantly surprised to see that Adam Marblestone, who collaborated on her very first paper, was also honored, and looks forward to a miniature reunion with him in the future.

When she received the final notice in June, she was flattered by being in the same company as past winners.

"I'm not being modest -- I was genuinely surprised," Kamal said. "But I was very pleasantly surprised."