Iris Cong entered UCLA at age 13 to study computer science. Now, at 18, she hopes to make inroads in quantum computing research.
Cong, who graduated with a computer science degree in 2017 and is now pursuing a doctoral degree in physics at Harvard University, was selected as one of 10 Hertz Foundation Fellows last week. The program, which received about 700 applications, provides doctoral students in STEM fields with tuition support and living stipends for five years.
Robbee Kosak, president of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, said in addition to providing financial support, the program connects fellows with each other.
“As young Ph.D. students, they are invited to an elite network of scientists,” she said.
The selection committee chooses applicants it believes are driven, smart and capable of creating an impact in their respective fields, Kosak said.
“We’re looking for extraordinary technical competence – that is important, but not sufficient,” she said. “The important thing we’re looking for … is what’s special about the person.”
Cong stood out to the selection committee because of her passion for quantum computing and curiosity, Kosak said.
“(She) is an extraordinarily bright woman, who seems to be one of the most curious and driven students we have met in a very long time,” she said. “The fact she did her undergraduate work at a very young age makes one sit up and (pay) attention to what drove her interest at an early age.”
Cong said she first learned about quantum computing and became involved in research after talking to Michael Jura, a UCLA astronomy professor who had been an instructor for one of her physics courses. Jura died Jan. 30, 2016.
“He mentioned quantum computing in a conversation and I didn’t know what it was at that time,” Cong said. “I looked it up and I thought it was a really interesting field. I really like … physics, math and computer science (and) I thought quantum computing involved all three subjects.”
Computers manufactured in the future will be faster than current computers because transistors, which allow computers to run efficiently, will be half their current sizes, Cong said. She added as transistors continue to decrease in size, quantum computing will help researchers better understand challenges caused by smaller transistors because the field looks at technology on the atomic scale.
Cong added she is studying physics at Harvard to gain a well-rounded view of quantum computing.
“At the current time, it’s more important for me to learn more physics and contribute more to the physics side (of quantum computing),” she said.
Alice Tang, a fourth-year bioengineering student who knew Cong when she was at UCLA, said she thinks Cong’s strong academic work ethic will allow her to succeed in her research.
“She was always one of those students who excelled in all of her classes,” Tang said. “She has a really strong background to go into her research.”
Luke Vellotti, a UCLA alumnus who studied computer science and mathematics and Cong’s friend, said she was dedicated to quantum computing and spent long hours on papers on the subject.
“I know there were many moments (when) she’d be perfecting papers until 1 a.m.,” Vellotti said. “They were very long, around 150 pages, all very detailed. It was all very advanced for her level, so I could tell that she was really into it. ”
Cong said she hopes that she will be able to contribute to quantum computing in the future because she will have an academic background in both physics and computer science.
“Having both degrees would be a really unique skill set, and hopefully that will help me contribute,” she said.
Cong added she looks forward to connecting with other Hertz fellows and learning from their experiences.
“Being able to learn from the experiences of such accomplished people is going to be a really nice part,” she said.