Although soccer players and politicians were most visible in the public spotlight during his early childhood, Zlatko Minev ’18 PhD looked to scientists and engineers as his inspirational lodestars. “Nikola Tesla unearthed something about nature at a deep level and seized that power to create a new science that was helpful to humanity. He solved a problem once deemed impossible,” says Minev. “In science, that is my goal too.”
While studying physics at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, Minev began conducting research in a new quantum computing lab, merging his two great passions, quantum physics and computer science. He soon learned that one of the birthplaces of superconducting qubit technology was Yale University. “I got the sense that if there’s an institution at the edge of what’s current in chip-based quantum computing, it’s Yale,” Minev says.
He arrived on campus in 2011 to pursue a PhD in applied physics, working with Professor Michel Devoret in the Yale Quantum Lab. “I grew a ton and learned a lot,” he recalls. “My time at Yale allowed me to return to that idea of understanding things at their deepest level. Research and learning were focused not just on applications but on rigorously understanding the foundational science underlying them.”
From Salsa Steps to Science Outreach
For Minev, developing skills and passions outside of the lab was just as important as delving deep into quantum science. He quickly joined Yale’s blues and salsa dancing clubs and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.
In 2012, he launched Open Labs, a science outreach program for the local New Haven community. “I had very little leadership experience at that point. Learning from others around me and attending leadership forums at Yale helped make the program successful and later helped my career,” says Minev.
Open Labs went on to reach more than 8,000 public school students and parents in New Haven. After a few years, Minev expanded the program from Yale to the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia.
“Sharing my passion for science, particularly while I was in the thick of it, was empowering for the students and even further motivating for me. It was rewarding to show young scholars some of the pathways to becoming a professional scientist whose research can change the world.”
A Revolutionary Discovery
While attending a conference in Scotland during his fifth year as a PhD student, Minev was inspired by a new question and devised an experiment that overturned a mainstay of quantum mechanics—one that had troubled Erwin Schrödinger, Neils Bohr, and Albert Einstein one hundred years ago.
“I had already published papers and could have graduated at that point and gotten a job,” says Minev. “But I started this new experiment, even with a lot of the world’s experts saying, ‘I’m not sure this will work. Likely, it’s not even possible in our lifetime.’ With the support and flexibility of a Yale fellowship, I dedicated an extra two years to a project that would either crash and burn or have a slim chance of being something truly exciting.”
At the core of quantum physics are discreteness and randomness, as exemplified by the phenomenon of a quantum jump, an atomic particle’s sudden transition from one of its discrete energy states to another. These ubiquitous and fundamental shifts happen unpredictably and instantaneously. Particles appear to leap from one energy state to another, spending no time in between.
Using technology newly developed at Yale during his dissertation, Minev’s experiment allowed him to peer into the actual workings of a quantum jump for the first time. The results showed a surprising finding that contradicted the established view — the jumps are neither abrupt nor as random as previously thought. What’s more, Minev’s experiment could predict when a quantum jump was about to happen, “catch” it halfway through, and even reverse it, thus preventing it from ever occurring.
His discovery, which was published in Nature, marks a major advance in our ability to understand and control quantum information. Researchers say reliably managing quantum data and correcting errors as they occur is a key challenge in the development of fully useful quantum computers.
A Career in Innovation
After earning his PhD, Minev joined IBM, where he founded and leads a mission to create quantum computer hardware and to advance what quantum computational scientist can achieve with these machines.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the degree to which all of the things I did at Yale have helped me at IBM,” he says. “I experienced firsthand that even graduate students can unearth discoveries previously believed to be impossible. That faith, along with the technical knowledge and leadership skills I gained, has been unmatched in its value inside and beyond the laboratory.”