Donors fast track quantum leaps
By Hayley Bryce
The capacity for science to make positive changes to both our personal and business lives has inspired University of Sydney alumni Hugh and Anne Harley to make a $500,000 donation to the University. Their gift is supporting the research of Associate Professor Michael Biercuk in his pursuit of a new generation of advanced quantum technologies that could revolutionise everything from encryption to energy distribution.
Hugh and Anne first met Professor Biercuk at the launch of the University’s INSPIRED fundraising campaign last year. Throughout the event Professor Biercuk shared details of his research programs, which are focused on the discovery of new physics through control of matter and light at the quantum, or subatomic level. His work at the University’s Quantum Control Laboratory is focused on developing a new class of specialised computers exploiting the laws of quantum physics, called Quantum Simulators.
“These devices work in a manner similar to a model aircraft in a wind tunnel – we’re building quantum scale models of much more complex systems. With these models in hand we are hoping to unlock some extraordinarily important but elusive questions about the behaviour of exotic materials known as superconductors. If we succeed, there is a possibility we can transform clean energy generation and distribution in quite fundamental ways,” explains Professor Biercuk.
After meeting at the event, Professor Biercuk invited Hugh to visit the lab to take a closer look. “I was enormously impressed with the lab. I think that so much of recent and likely future human history has really been driven by progression in computing. To see this idea of quantum computing, which had theoretically been thought about for quite a long time but is only now really getting up and running, was remarkable,” says Hugh.
The Harleys’ belief in the University of Sydney and the capabilities of its researchers cemented their decision to make their donation to the Quantum Simulation Project. “In a globalised world, Australia is going to rise and fall by the quality of its institutions, and the University of Sydney ranks very highly. This specific opportunity came a little out of the blue, but we’d been thinking about the right way to contribute for a while,” explains Hugh.
With a background in banking, quantum computing wasn’t a completely new subject area for Hugh, who is Financial Services Leader for PwC in Asia and Australia. Although he is familiar with areas such as trends in encryption, he had little knowledge that the University was making such progress in the field.
“Certainly, one thing that has piqued my interest is the area of semiconductors. There’s been discussion for a long time about the potential for semiconductors to be able to transport energy very efficiently and we just haven’t been able to unpack that.”
Anne adds: “for me, the idea of quantum computing was quite new but Mike was very enthusiastic about communicating to us what he did. I certainly understand a lot more about this area than I did and it’s very exciting.”
Securing funding for projects such as the Quantum Simulation Project poses a challenge. “After visiting the lab, Mike and Julia Tauber (Associate Director of Development for the Faculty of Science), expressed how pleased they were with the progress in the work and their excitement about where it could go. They explained that they had obtained funding for things like premises and equipment and people. But they said there were challenges in getting funding for the day-to-day expenses, the stuff that helps with getting people to international conferences, and hiring more junior people on a part-time basis,” Hugh explains.
Although Hugh’s father was involved in medical research, theoretical science is the area that Hugh and Anne chose to support. “Civilisation has really been driven by two things – accumulation of knowledge and the harnessing of energy. Initially, it was solar energy through agriculture and more recently, fossil fuels for industry. The beauty of this research is that potentially it goes to both those drivers of civilisation.”
Hugh also makes a broader point. “I am surprised that more and more we read in the global media about ‘bankers vs science’. It’s something that we really need to knock on the head pretty quickly. The very origin of the Industrial Revolution was entrepreneurs harnessing the explosion of scientific knowledge.”
Hugh and Anne’s commitment to science is also evident in their interest in farming, where they place a particular focus on sustainable improvements in soil and water quality. “What we do there is an expression of the practical importance of science.”
For Professor Biercuk, the gift demonstrates a trust and belief in the potential of science. “It is exceptionally moving to see this kind of personal dedication to science. This gift represents a recognition that investment in science can have tremendous benefits for our economy and society.
So much of recent and likely future human history has really been driven by progression in computing.
“Using only our most basic understanding of quantum mechanics has given us the modern information era – PCs, mobile phones and the internet – and we are only now becoming able to harness and exploit the full range of phenomena predicted by quantum theory. This gift will support our group’s efforts towards engineering a new technological future enabled by the strange laws of quantum physics.”
The Harleys have a long history with the University, even meeting each other at a party on Lawson Street near the Camperdown Campus. Following graduation, Hugh began his career teaching economics at the University of Sydney, before starting his banking career as an economist with the Commonwealth Bank in 1987.
“I had a grandmother who was at the University in the early ’20s studying English. My Dad studied medicine after the Second World War and then did his MD in the early ’60s. The University was my first permanent job – a humble half-time tutor but none the less very helpful in getting me started.”
Hugh is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney Business School, a member of the INSPIRED Campaign Board and President of the Business Alumni Network.
With such strong affiliations with the University, Anne and Hugh appreciate the impact of philanthropy on the institution’s progress and the importance of a diversified revenue stream for a successful future, “All successful institutions, academic or not, need a diversity of revenue and for universities, philanthropy really has to be part and parcel of that. Australia doesn’t do too badly on the philanthropy stakes overall but we’re certainly off the pace relative to traditions in some countries like the US.
“In an environment where government finance and the public purse is going to be increasingly strained, then universities have to be looking for different sources.
“It was a great honour to be asked to join the Campaign board. There’s clearly a need for the University to be thinking about broader sources of funding and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to be able to contribute.”