Your stories: 2018 Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons

Understanding the tiniest building blocks of our world has the potential to revolutionise the way we go about our lives and work, according to research by UniSuper member, quantum physicist and 2018 Australian of Year, Professor Michelle Simmons from the University of New South Wales.

This International Women’s Day (IWD), Professor Simmons shares her most interesting discoveries, what being named Australian of the Year means to her, and her thoughts on the advancement of women in STEM.

Some people may not be familiar with your area of expertise but it has the potential to revolutionise the way many of us go about our work and our lives. How would you describe quantum physics? And what drew you to it?

Quantum physics describes how the world behaves at very small scales. When we consider the fundamental building blocks of nature—such as atoms—their behaviour is dominated by quantum rather than classical physics. By controlling matter at this scale, we have the potential to create a new form of computer called a quantum computer.

I was drawn to this problem because it combines fundamental understanding of how the world works at the atomic-scale with my experience of engineering and creating new electronic devices. It’s also an important problem. Ultimately, if we’re successful, we’ll create a new computing technology that is highly beneficial for humanity.

What does this type of recognition mean to you, and for the advancement of women in the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?

I never in my wildest dreams imagined anything like this happening to me. I’m grateful and feel extremely honoured. The recognition also makes me want to work harder than ever, and it’s strengthened my desire to encourage others—both girls and boys—to enter STEM fields.

STEM careers are incredibly rewarding. They involve hard work, tend to challenge people and open their horizons. Coincidentally (but perhaps also not), they also come with some of the highest starting salaries after graduation. And, of course, Australia needs a highly skilled workforce, otherwise we’ll fall, behind! We should all be strongly encouraging young people to think about these kinds of careers.

What’s been the most unexpected or interesting finding you’ve made?

In creating the new field of atomic electronics, we’re now building electronic devices that have never been made before—enabling us to discover a whole range of unexpected effects.

For instance, we’ve engineered silicon wires as thin as four atoms wide to behave like copper for example, demonstrating that Ohm’s Law (the scientific law stating that electric current is proportional to voltage and inversely proportional to resistance) survives to the atomic scale. Every device we make is unique, and atom by atom, we’re building up a picture of the way the world behaves at the quantum level.

What's one of the toughest challenges you've faced in your career?

One of the toughest challenges was when we first set out to make electronic devices with atomic precision. We broke the problem into eight different stages and at that time, the view within the scientific community was that the chances of our getting through all eight stages were near impossible.

Our solution was to combine two technologies that had previously been considered incompatible. To my delight, the approach worked much better than I had hoped, and over a period of around 10 years, we systematically solved all those eight challenges that had been predicted to block our way. 

It all culminated in creating the first single atom transistor in 2012.

Who—either in your public life or in your private life—inspires you?

In my private life, it’s easily my husband. He is optimistic, energetic and insightful. He works incredibly hard, is amazingly diligent and always surprises me. He has a unique way of looking at the world and constantly challenges my beliefs and thinking.

In my public life there are so many, but here are a few: Jagadish Chennaputi (for his unceasing hard work and sense of responsibility), Stephen Menzies (for his integrity and intelligence), and Cathy Foley (who is trailblazer both for women in physics and for physicists having an impact in the world).

A young woman comes to you, looking for career advice. What’s your number one tip?

Create your own destiny, but recognise that reward comes from hard work.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give your 15-year-old self?

Believe in your inner voice and go for it.

And finally, a question we like to ask all of the members we interview—what does your ideal retirement look like?

I honestly can’t see myself retiring unless my body gives out! I love creating and building things as well as teaching, so those things will always be a part of me. I also aim to remain as busy and active as I am now.

That said retirement for me would need to include some time for dancing with my husband, painting pictures, and learning to play the piano. I am also looking forward to watching my children grow old and hopefully someday to having a quite a few grandchildren to muck around with.

Find out more about Professor Simmons’ work.