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Three UVic students who share a common passion for quantum computing recently joined forces to win three categories in an international competition.
Tristan Zaborniak, Juan Giraldo and Saasha Joshi, all master’s students in computer science, were among the hundreds of experts and enthusiasts from around the world who participated in QHack 2022.
The online competition featured a series of increasingly difficult coding challenges that took place over 11 days, followed by a five-day open hackathon. Toronto-based Xanadu Quantum Technologies, which organizes the annual competition, said 3,280 people and 800 teams entered, representing more than 100 countries.
“We were looking to hone our quantum problem-solving abilities, showcase original work, and possibly win prizes,” says Zaborniak. “Our group participated as a Qnyble team and out of the 13 hackathon challenges, we got first place out of three.”
Each of the challenges was sponsored by a leading quantum company and came with its own prizes, including internships, mentorships, free access to top quantum computing platforms, laptops and headsets.
Hackathon projects were judged on three criteria: scientific and technical capacity; presentation quality; and the depth of use of the quantum computing software and hardware stack.
The UVic team focused on how quantum computing can be used to better understand and improve RNA folding predictions. RNA molecules are fundamental for many basic biological functions and are somewhat similar in structure to DNA. RNA’s ability to fold into stable 3D structures in tandem with its sequence chemistry dictates how it will interact with other molecules. Being able to predict how RNA folds is of urgent interest to human medicine, but is also extremely difficult with classical computers. Quantum computers – which enable potential acceleration on a specific set of difficult computational problems, essentially by being able to take advantage of quantum mechanical properties such as superposition, entanglement and interference – could greatly improve our understanding of folding RNA.
Team member Juan Giraldo says being able to better predict how a given RNA sequence folds could lead to the development of improved drugs and vaccines, as well as treatments for diseases such as the disease. Alzheimer’s and cancer.
“RNA can play an important role in these types of solutions,” says Giraldo, whose area of study is the quantum software stack. “It is important to note, for example, that COVID is an RNA virus, which can be protected against the use of an mRNA vaccine.”
Giraldo, who is from Colombia, and his teammate Saasha Joshi, who is from India, both decided to pursue graduate studies at UVic after learning about the work of two researchers from UVic’s Department of Computer Science. , Hausi Müller and Ulrike Stege, leaders in the quantum computing scene. Meanwhile, Zaborniak, who is from Comox and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and biochemistry at UVic, chose a master’s degree that would allow him to focus on computational biology and quantum computing with Stege and Ibrahim Numanagić, another faculty member in computer science.
Joshi, who is interning at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center near New York this summer, was the one who suggested entering QHack 2022, posting information about the competition on a Slack channel for students at the master’s program. Giraldo and Zaborniak answered the call.
“It’s surprising that we won three challenges organized by three different companies,” says Joshi, whose studies focus on quantum machine learning. “But, especially with COVID, there’s such interest in the RNA folding field now – people are definitely paying more attention to it.”
The three decided to focus on RNA folding for the competition following lessons Giraldo and Zaborniak had already taken in the area during a class with Hosna Jabbari, assistant professor of computer science.
“We came up with this idea, but it was a starting point: we had to follow the criteria that each company had set for their challenges,” says Zaborniak. “So, for example, in the challenge sponsored by Amazon, we had to use and integrate our work into Amazon’s platform.”
Their work paid off. The team’s prizes included an internship at drug design company Menten AI (Zaborniak will do the internship) and highly sought-after credits that give them access to quantum computing platforms from multiple companies.
As access to these platforms can be expensive, the credits will allow the three students to flesh out their project, explains Giraldo. They also plan to submit a paper to IEEE Quantum Week, a high profile international conference that attracts hundreds of industry leaders, researchers and educators.
“Participating in QHack 2022 was an incredible opportunity for our students to engage with the Canadian and international quantum computing industry,” says Stege.
Müller called the students’ achievements “very impressive,” adding that a grant program developed last year by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has been hugely beneficial in attracting and training future professionals. of high caliber in quantum computing.
“The NSERC CREATE grant in quantum computing has allowed us to recruit excellent graduate students,” says Müller. Giraldo, Joshi and Zaborniak are among five University of Victoria Computer Science graduate students who are NSERC CREATE Fellows in Quantum Computing.
The unique training program – co-delivered by UBC, UVic and SFU – is a complement to a graduate degree and is designed to equip graduates with highly specialized technical expertise and business skills in quantum computing hardware and software.