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Quantum computing master's graduate smashes academic silos

Amira Mahomed Abbas has graduated cum laude with an MSc in physics, specialising in quantum computing. What makes her slightly different from her fellow graduates is that she is already a qualified actuarial scientist.

After successfully matriculating from Eden College in Durban, Abbas moved to the University of Cape Town, where she undertook her actuarial science degree. On graduation, she was successfully employed in the financial sector. She passed all three Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) board exams in 18 months and won the CFA Institute Women's Scholarship Award in June 2018. Yet she still found herself yearning for something more challenging. This led her to research quantum physics and to watch related educational videos.

Abbas always had an affinity for mathematics. During her years at high school and at undergraduate level, she was able to learn several programming languages, played provincial sport, captained the debating team and strived to obtain a diverse set of skills.

While employed in the financial industry, Abbas pioneered several projects involving artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and socially responsible investments. She realised that her passion lay in the intersection of science and artificial intelligence, so resigned from her job to pursue full-time research into quantum machine learning, "which integrates physics, mathematics, statistics, machine learning and programming".

Abbas was attracted to UKZN owing to the reputation of South African Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing and Communication, Professor Francesco Petruccione, who is based in the School of Chemistry and Physics, and his Quantum Research Group.

"Researchers are working hard to build quantum computers that can be used to do advanced calculations," said Abbas. "My work involves looking at how these calculations can be used to perform human-like tasks (artificial intelligence) in order to help us in our lives."

Abbas stated that Quantum computing research could lead to new types of medicine, more efficient systems in logistics, better financial modelling and many other applications that span multiple domains. "Quantum computing will give African researchers the opportunity to be at the forefront of the next computational revolution," she said.

Abbas described the research experience as rewarding and said she was extremely grateful to UKZN and her supervisors, Professor Petruccione and Dr Maria Schuld for supporting her studies.

"The MSc of Amira Abbas is the perfect example of a rapidly changing academia," said Petruccione. "Until a few years ago, such a trajectory would not have been possible. Amira is the best example that researchers from different backgrounds have to come together to solve relevant problems. The boundaries between the traditional academic silos are disappearing fast. I believe that the career path of Amira, starting in accounting and completing an MSc in theoretical physics, will be the new normal in the world that will emerge from the crisis we are in.

"Amira came in to UKZN like a whirlwind," said Schuld. "Her unusual biography and energetic personality made her approach things very differently, and it was amazing to see how quickly she grasped the concepts of quantum computing. We are extremely proud that she is planning to stay with us for her PhD, and I'm sure there are great things yet to come from her career!"

Currently, Abbas is hired to do an internship at International Business Machines (IBM) in Zurich, Switzerland, as part of their quantum computing research team. Research undertaken there will contribute to her PhD.

Author: Leena Rajpal