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In a rare distinction for a female Australian scientist – particularly one whose field has historically been a male province – physicist Michelle Y. Simmons was recently honored as her country’s “Australian of the Year” for 2018. The award, conferred annually since 1960 by the National Australia Day Council, recognizes citizens who have demonstrated excellence in their field, made a significant contribution to the Australian community and nation, and served as an inspirational role model.
Simmons is the Director of the Australian Research Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney.
In 2012, Simmons, leading a team composed of her UNSW colleagues along with collaborators at the University of Melbourne, Purdue University, and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, made science headlines by creating a working transistor consisting of a single atom. The group’s creation, an atom of phosphorous embedded in a sheet of silicon, was the first such device amenable to precise positioning and control, marking a milestone in the effort to fashion large-scale, functional quantum computers.
Unlike today’s computers, which encode information via bits in the form of either 0 or 1, quantum computers employ qubits (i.e., quantum bits), which can exist in several states at once. This property, along with an interactive state known as entanglement, allows qubits to handle multiple calculations simultaneously.
The processing power of quantum computing, as Simmons told Australia Unlimited in 2017, “allows you to solve certain problems in minutes that would take conventional computers centuries, or even thousands of years.” These applications, involving the very biggest of big data, include the modeling of complex financial markets, the simulation of biomolecules in the design of new medicines, and the optimization of supply chains and other logistics for industry.
For now, such applications remain theoretical. The experimental transistor constructed by Simmons and colleagues, in addition to its impractically tiny scale, can only function at ultra-low temperature – minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit. So there is still much work to be done. But Simmons and her team provided a giant leap.
For Simmons, embracing challenges and risk has been a lifelong practice – beginning, as she noted in a profile by the Australian Broadcasting Company, with chess. As a child, she would watch her brother and father play chess, gradually and silently building her understanding of the game. Finally, she challenged her father to a game, and won. The gratifying feeling of defying expectations and learning difficult subjects led her to math and physics.
Later, this same spirit impelled a move in 1999 from the UK and her native London to citizenship in Australia, while pursuing a career in quantum physics – a field with less than 10 percent female representation. For Simmons, the latter was yet another opportunity to confound stereotypical expectations. And the same motif – being part of a pioneering minority – is also reflected in her Australian of the Year award: Although a dozen or so scientists have joined the artists, activists, sports figures, and others in winning the distinction since 1960, Simmons is only the second female scientist to do so.
Needless to say, the groundbreaking work of Simmons and her colleagues has captured the attention of the scientific community. According to Clarivate Analytics Web of Science, the 2012 paper in which they present the single-atom transistor has been cited more than 340 times (Nature Nanotechnology, 7 : 742-6, 2012). This tally confers official Highly Cited Paper status on the report, marking its rank among the top 1% most cited for its subject field and year of publication. Two more of Simmons’s reports published since 2012 also rank as Highly Cited Papers. These are the standouts among more than 200 papers from Simmons and colleagues indexed in the Web of Science since 2000.
As Simmons continues her work at the forefront of quantum computing, her tally of highly cited papers, as well as her store of awards and honors, will no doubt continue to grow.
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