“Research always looks to the future”

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Dr. Heike Riel, IBM Fellow, Head of Research Nanoscale Electronics Group, Research Center in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, in the nanotechnology laboratory. (Image: Nik Hunger)

Interview with FAU-Alumna Dr. Heike Riel

As IBM (International Business Machines Cooperation) Fellow, Head of Science & Technology and Lead of IBM Research Quantum Europe at IBM Research, Dr Heike Riel is based in Switzerland and one of her many projects involves developing a new generation of computer processors. The FAU alumna has received a number of different awards, for example she was listed by MIT Technology Review as one of the top 100 early career scientists in 2003 and has been a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina since 2016. Handelsblatt magazine has named Dr. Riel as one of the 50 most influential women in the German technology sector.

With Dr. Riel’s assistance and at the request of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first quantum computer outside the USA has now been delivered to Germany, to the Fraunhofer Institute in Ehningen in Baden-Württemberg.

In our interview, Dr. Heike Riel gives an insight into her work for IBM and talks about her lasting connections to FAU.

Dr. Riel, you studied physics at FAU in the 90’s. Why did you decide to study at FAU?

FAU had a very good reputation for physics and engineering. In particular, there was a fairly new Institute of Technological Physics that was working on a number of exciting projects involving III-V semi-conductors. I was also drawn to Erlangen due to its international reputation in the field of optics. At the time, I was studying for my Abitur at the nearby vocational school (BOS) in Nuremberg, so it made sense to go to Erlangen. And, a very important factor, I was able to keep up with my favourite sport, handball.

What do you especially remember about your time at FAU?

The thing I most remember about the early semesters is the mad dash to get from my maths lectures in the town centre to the physics lectures immediately after them at the Southern campus. Followed by the same procedure again in the afternoons for tutorials. You had to cycle if you were to have any chance of getting there on time. The good thing about it was that I always had a breath of fresh air between classes. However, I do think it’s an improvement that both subjects are now taught at the new, extended Southern campus in Erlangen.

Do you or did you have a favourite spot at FAU or in Erlangen?

Whenever I come to Erlangen, I notice that a lot has changed, but unfortunately I don’t get to come as often as I would like. I always liked the physics lecture hall in the old physics building in the town centre, although I was only ever there for exams.

And I still particularly enjoy visiting the Botanical Garden and the Schlossplatz.

You initially completed a furniture-making apprenticeship before starting to study. Are there parallels between working as a furniture maker and a physicist?

Yes, definitely. Furniture making is a very creative profession. To be an excellent carpenter, you need to have ideas, be able to work with precision, use tools and have a passion for your work. The same is true for experimental physicists. Here, you must also be very creative and have a vision, be willing to experiment and able to work with precision. It is also essential to have access to an excellent infrastructure, especially in the area of nanotechnology. If you want to be one of the best you always need passion and stamina, no matter the profession.

Many people only have a very vague picture of what it actually means to make physics your profession. Could you give a brief description of what you currently do at IBM?

I am the Head of the Research Division Science & Technology and am responsible for research in the area of Quantum Computing in Europe and Africa. We deal with the future of the computer and carry out research into hardware, software and applications of quantum computers, new components and processors for artificial intelligence (AI). We carry out both fundamental and applied research.

Could you give some examples?

For example, we develop new materials and components that we hope will accelerate calculations in AI applications. That involves carrying out experiments in laboratories and clean rooms, as well as characterising and measuring material properties (electrical, magnetic and optical properties) and naturally also analysis and theory. We also carry out research into and develop hardware, software and new algorithms for quantum computing.

What benefit does your research have for our daily lives?

Research always looks to the future and is one step ahead. With our research in the area of hardware for artificial intelligence, we are developing new materials and components for microchips that are specialised in accelerating underlying computing processes and reducing energy consumption. This is vitally important for self-driving vehicles. In the area of quantum computing, we are working at various levels. We are working to improve hardware whilst also developing software to make quantum computers easier to operate, and at the same time we are researching which mathematical problems and applications can be solved particularly well by quantum computers.

Furniture making is a very creative profession. To be an excellent carpenter, you need to have ideas, be able to work with precision, use tools and have a passion for your work. The same is true for experimental physicists.

What about hardware for quantum technology?

One of our aims in the area of hardware is to design electronics that can work at very low temperatures. We are also investigating techniques for how quantum processors can exchange quantum information, for example by transforming a microwave signal to an optical signal and back again. We are also working on various hardware technologies for quantum bits. As well as investigating superconducting quantum processors we are researching silicon spin qubits as well as topological materials and components.

Have any of your research findings already made their way into our daily lives?

During my first project at IBM, I worked on organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) for screen applications. After investigating the fundamental mechanisms, we were able to improve the brightness, colour and life of the OLEDs to such an extent that they are now used not only in digital clocks and mobile phones but also in TV screens. Another example are semi-conducing nanowires and nanostructures that I researched and developed over the course of several years and that are due to be launched on the market in microprocessors with 2-nanometre technology. It is an amazing feeling when research results in something useful and not simply in an academic publication.

What do you think about the fact that FAU was involved in designing the revolutionary Sycamore quantum processor from Google?

It’s great. I’m always pleased to hear when scientists from my alma mater are successful.

What do you think about pop-culture programmes that deal with topics relating to physics, like ‘The Big Bang Theory’?

On the one hand, it is important that there are TV programmes, series, films and other pop-culture products that can spark young people’s interest in science and technology. However, the quality of the various programmes is debatable. Some of them give a distorted view of science and scientists, perpetuating false role models.

Are you still in touch with any of your former fellow students and professors?

Yes, I am still in touch with some former fellow students and some professors. It is quite common to meet former colleagues who work in similar fields of research at conferences or congresses.

As one of the most influential personalities in the science and tech sector, what advice would you give current FAU students?

The most important thing is that you enjoy what you do, then you can do it particularly well. It is also important to be open to new challenges, as you learn the most when you dare to leave your comfort zone. Good mentors can give valuable advice on which steps you should take next. At the end of the day, though, it is up to you to actually do it.

Thank you for taking part in the interview, Dr. Riel.


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