Vandit Srivastava (EE1)
Interned at IIT-D (Research Project)
Domain: Quantum Computing
Motivation and the Process of Application
During my second year, I secured a research internship in the fascinating realm of quantum computing, a field I've been passionate about since 9th grade. Despite facing challenges securing a foreign internship due to my CGPA, I discovered the SURA program. I connected with two professors, one from IIT Delhi and another from IIT Bombay, who shared my enthusiasm for quantum computing. Though we weren't selected for SURA, my partner and I persevered with the project. The core objective of our internship was to explore a Quantum Approximate Optimisation Algorithm, a Quantum algorithm that has the potential to outperform its classical counterparts. (You can imagine these classical counterparts to be somewhat similar to the algorithms that you implement in a very sophisticated COL106 assignment and the Quantum Algorithm to be a very different way to solve these problems that employ a form of computation very different from the one used in your INTEL and MacBook chips). Looking back, it was undoubtedly the best decision I made last semester.
A solid academic foundation is crucial in fields like quantum computing, where research and courses are very niche. While courses like COL106 (Data Structures and Algorithms) and PYL101 (Quantum Mechanics) provided some relevant knowledge for the research internship, MTL101 (Linear Algebra) proved to be immensely useful. Linear algebra forms the fundamental basis of quantum mechanics and quantum computing, making it an essential starting point. Investing more attention in linear algebra during my second semester would have eased my journey into quantum computing. I wish I had taken the course more seriously in my freshman year as it would have smoothened things for me later. But it is never too late to learn, so don’t worry if you were like me and now wish to make amends. You can always redeem yourself in the Kingdom of God, or should I say- Maths ;)
Initially, I wanted to apply for a SURA Project, for which I went through Faculty Pages and mailed professors whose work areas interest me. One of the IITB professors working on Quantum Computing responded to my mail. He asked me and my partner to provide our CVs and Gradesheets. Now, having a CGPA higher than 8 smoothened the process of application. A follow-up interview was conducted by the professor to assess our passion and to check whether we were suitable for the field in which he was working. Since Quantum Computing is not taught to sophomores, he wasn’t expecting us to know much about the area. We did some essential reading prior to the meeting, which was sufficient. In the meeting, we tried to express our genuine interest towards the field and had a fruitful discussion with the professor. Finally, he decided to give us the project on QAOA. While the project offered to us initially was in a different field, and since we had expressed our strong desire to work in Quantum Computing, the professor decided and accommodated our interests by giving the project in our desired field. While we could not get selected for SURA, we insisted on pursuing the project as a Summer Internship. Satisfied with our work so far, the Professor was more than willing to let us intern under him during summers, with another Professor from IITD acting as our Supervisor.
Experience: Work, challenges and insecurities
I'm grateful to my professor for the format of my internship. It was very flexible and accessible but did not compromise on the quality of work. We were given full liberty to work whenever and from wherever we wanted to. We had rough deadlines; for example, we would have weekly meetings, and sometimes more if anything interesting popped up during our research, and we wanted to discuss it.
During my eight-week internship, the initial two weeks were dedicated to a literature survey and gaining a fundamental understanding of quantum computing, as we needed to gain prior knowledge about this area from courses alone. We were asked to read “Quantum Computation and Quantum Information” by Isaac Chuang and Michael Nielsen. The professor guided us during this period, teaching us essential concepts. As we started our practical work, our roles became more defined, and the process became streamlined. We were integrated into a WhatsApp group, receiving instructions from the professor throughout the week, and sent our finished work via email. This approach allowed for flexibility in our work schedule. The internship was both productive and efficient without being overly demanding.
One significant challenge I confronted early on was navigating through complex research papers without feeling overwhelmed. Research often leads to an endless rabbit hole, so I had to learn when to treat certain concepts as "black boxes" and stop delving further to move on to the next bit. Adapting to an online work environment during our remote internship was not a hurdle, as most tasks didn't require physical presence. However, ensuring that we and our Professor were always on the same page was challenging. We slightly struggled with this initially but eventually found our rhythm.
Moreover, I learned a crucial lesson during my internship: effective communication with my professor and teammates is paramount. While following instructions is vital, engaging in meaningful discussions with your Professors and teammates adds depth to your research. Initially, I underestimated this aspect but later realised its value. Our meetings, which discussed results and future plans, provided invaluable insights. As a researcher, I was focused on details, whereas my professor had a broader view. Embracing this perspective helped me thrive and get the most out of my internship.
The Quantum Algorithms we work with provide probabilistic outcomes. A central part of our research involved improving the probability of getting an Optimal Solution, especially on noisy hardware (also known as Success Probability). Unlike simulations, where our algorithms perform exceptionally well, on actual quantum hardware beyond a few stages of multi-qubit gates, the quantum circuit succumbs to so much noise that Success Probability decreases significantly.
While trying to solve this problem, I observed that I could reduce the number of CNOT gates (the main source of error) with a slight modification in my code. I reduced CNOT gates by half for symmetric graphs by leveraging circuit symmetry. Employing this simplification resulted in a 12% improvement in success probability. At first, I got very excited, thinking I had discovered something completely new. However, reality soon struck me when I found that this technique had already been used before. All of this was slightly disheartening, but looking at it the other way, it showed that we were on the right track. This particular incident taught me that for any idea you come up with, there’s a high chance that someone else has already thought of it. What looks like a big breakthrough to you might be just a piece of trivial information for the Scientific community. However, I didn’t let this kill my spirit in any way. I believe that if I keep trying, sSomeday, I will indeed come up with something no one has ever thought of before!!!
From my limited perspective, applying for a foreign internship often involves emailing multiple professors in your fields of interest. The key to success is to start early, ideally after your minor exams in the third semester. I started very late and, as a result, couldn’t apply in time for some foreign universities of interest. Getting a fruitful response takes time when you reach out to professors for a foreign internship; professors need to see that you are capable and that your input is valuable to their team. They may provide you with tasks like reading research papers and other materials. In the case of a physical internship, apart from research-related efforts, you'll need to navigate the VISA approval process, make plans, and mentally prepare for the experience abroad. Starting early and maintaining a good CGPA is essential.
For SURA applications, it's vital to be well-versed in your topic. Having worked on projects before helps you find a professor in your field of choice. Starting the Literature Review early or Showing some initial progress in your SURA proposal and presentation gives an edge. Start working on your presentation well in advance. Looking back, a better preparation would have helped us land a SURA.
When applying directly to professors, honesty is the key. Being genuine and honest is crucial in any application process. Only mail professors whose work genuinely interests you.