A curiosity about how the world worked has led Rose Ahlefeldt into the rarified world of quantum physics and the future of computing.
The Australian National University physicist is this year’s ACT Scientist of the Year, an award that celebrates Canberra’s emerging scientists and aims to inspire young people to consider a career in STEM fields.
Dr Ahlefeldt said that as a child she liked building things and spent a lot of time in her father’s garage making stuff.
“These are actually the skills I use today, building things and thinking creatively about the world,” she said.
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Dr Ahlefeldt uses novel rare-earth crystals for applications in quantum information, including high-data storage density. Her work to build better quantum memories will be needed in the future for quantum computers and, eventually, the quantum internet.
“I like working on quantum memories because I get to take that fundamental understanding of materials and actually apply it to a real work problem and possibly apply it to a new technology we could use in the future,” she said.
She believes the secure networks, artificial intelligence and new drugs of the future could all find their origins in a crystal.
Her research is trying to find the right materials to build the quantum memories needed for quantum computers, which could solve some of the world’s “impossible” problems.
“The problem is we fundamentally don’t have the materials at the moment that can reach the sort of data storage densities we need for quantum computers, so my work is to study new materials to find out how we’re going to get there,” Dr Ahlefeldt said.
“My work is using crystals containing rare earth ions to store quantum information, which starts off as pulses of light. We transfer the information from the light to the atoms in the crystal, creating a quantum memory.
“I am trying to understand how the atoms in the crystals interact with the light, so I can choose the right materials to make better quantum memories.
“One day we’re going to build quantum computers that can solve problems that are impossible for our current computers. Researchers have already identified many uses for these computers, including enhancing artificial intelligence, establishing secure communications and eventually building a quantum internet.”
Dr Ahlefeldt said a career in science really started with curiosity about some aspect of the world.
“So the main piece of advice I’d give to young people interested in science is just to do what you are interested in and follow the things you find exciting and let that take you into whatever science career you can find,” she said.
ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt congratulated Dr Ahlefeldt on being named ACT Scientist of the Year.
“Rose is creating the building blocks that will help enable a quantum computer future. It’s fantastic to see her fundamental and very important work recognised in this way,” Professor Schmidt said.
“ANU and the ACT are at the forefront of advances in the quantum world, partnering with our colleagues across Australia as world leaders in technologies that are revolutionising the digital world.”
Dr Ahlefeldt, a research fellow at the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering, joins past recipients Dr Kai Xun Chan (2017), Dr Ceridwen Fraser (2016) and Dr Colin Jackson (2015) who each spent their 12 months as ACT Scientist of the Year inspiring young people to consider STEM careers and promoting the ACT as a centre of excellence for science and research.
The annual ACT Scientist of the Year Award recognises the achievements of an ‘up and coming’ scientist with significant potential to continue to achieve in their chosen field of research.
The award is accompanied by $30,000 prize money.