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Postdoctoral Fellow interview with Marlon Brenes

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Bio: Marlon Brenes is a PDF at the Department of Physics at UofT, and a former CQIQC PDF (22-23). Marlon is working with Prof. Dvira Segal, broadly on the theory of open quantum systems at strong coupling, quantum metrology, quantum thermodynamics and many-body physics.

Marlon finished his early education at Universidad de Costa Rica focusing on physics and chemical engineering before he moved to Trieste (Italy), where he earned a masters degree in high performance computing and computational science at ICTP/SISSA. He obtained his PhD from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland) under the supervision of Prof. John Goold in the topic of quantum thermodynamics of many-body systems.

Marlon likes traditional-styled tattoos, heavy music, snowboarding and Gaelic sports.

CQIQC: Can you tell us about your area of expertise and what it entails.

MB: Transformations are the essence of the natural world, which we understand from the perspective of thermodynamics.

Thermodynamics is a three-century old theory that has stood the test of time. Its elegance and strength lie in the fact that it does not attempt to unravel the fundamental principles of nature, but it does pose the fundamental laws under which transformations occur.

Broadly stated, thermodynamics is nowadays employed to understand and quantify the resources required to achieve a certain task. These tasks can be anything ranging from fuel economy on engines and cryptographic communication, to microscopic energetic transformations.

The microscopic/nanoscale world is dictated by the laws of quantum mechanics. My area of expertise involves describing how thermodynamics dictates the elusive aspects of the quantum realm. There are several practical applications to this goal, of which we could mention the efficient operation of nanoscale engines and quantum computers. In general, however, outside of fundamental understanding the goal is to establish the concepts required for efficient operation of future quantum technologies.

CQIQC: What kind of problems appeal to you?

MB: I am motivated by how quantum effects, those most-prominently present in atomic-scaled platforms, can be used as a resource to achieve unprecedented tasks.

As a computational scientist, any problem for which you need complex software to understand transformations involving quantum mechanics will pique my interest.

Over the course of my career, most of my work has been devoted to the development of numerical and analytical methods to understand thermodynamics in the quantum realm. Although we have shed light on promising quantum effects, more work needs to be devoted to understanding the fundamental components required to achieve benefits from technologies that operate in the quantum realm.

CQIQC: What led you to be interested in this, and how did it bring you to U of T?

MB: I came into this field somewhat fortuitously. Although quantum mechanics was my favourite subject as an undergrad, it was finding out the power that computational science has in the field that led me straight to it. There are problems in quantum mechanics which require computer simulations to be understood. I was able to put together my prowess in developing computational software to target the solution to complex problems.

I arrived in Toronto shortly after the completion of my PhD. The research being conducted at CQIQC strongly aligns to my own interests, particularly those of my principal investigator, Professor Dvira Segal. I found perfect synergy here, where I have been able to exploit my skills while learning new things everyday. Anecdotally, I did not apply to another position. The CQIQC PDF was the only position I applied for during the final year of my PhD. I am very lucky and grateful to have obtained it.

CQIQC: What are you currently working on? Do you see this as a largely theoretical pursuit at this time, or are there potential practical applications?

MB: I prefer working on different topics (within the domain of quantum science) than to specialise in a given problem. Broadly stated, I am working towards understanding the effects of the surrounding environment on a quantum system. In several scenarios with practical applications, the effect of the environment on a quantum system is to kill coherence. This is a technical word to say that the environment, oftentimes, kills the quantumness of a quantum system. This effect is something that you want to avoid, since the quantumness itself is the resource you want to use for a specific task, such as computation for example.

In certain cases, however, environmental effects are a resource rather than a hindrance. At this point in time these pursuits are rather theoretical and fundamental, although I expect them to have consequences in future applications in quantum technologies.

CQIQC: What would you say has been your career highlight to date?

MB: In many ways, the pursuit of a scientist falls in line with the pursuit of an artist: recognition.

Like an artist, a scientist thrives whenever the community accepts and displays their work inside reputable venues. A highlight in any scientist's career is to have our work published in highly-ranked scientific journals which endow our efforts with recognition. I believe I have succeeded in this respect and strive towards continuing to do so.

In all honesty, however, the thing I am most proud of in my career is the ability to keep doing what I am passionate about.

CQIQC: What are your hopes for the future?

MB: Physicists are, in this day and age, social creatures. We thrive when collaborating with different groups, bringing different types of expertise into a common pool.

My hope is to keep building my network to continue developing science. Asides from that, I work towards becoming an academic in my field.

CQIQC: What challenges would you say loom largest for researchers in your area?

MB: I mentioned before that quantumness, the property of a system to display quantum features, may be sometimes employed as a resource.

This property, with current technology, is quite fragile. It takes a tremendous amount of control to maintain it.

The strides to maintain this feature in nanoscale systems have been impressive, with a list of examples too long to mention.

At the level of quantum computation, it is at this point consensus that one of the biggest challenges for quantum technologies is to be able to maintain quantumness for long periods of time and to scale up the number of individual units that compose the quantum system, in order to use quantum systems for practical purposes.

The above is a technical challenge. At the fundamental level, many challenges remain. In particular, those related to the necessary conditions to use quantum features as resources for different practical tasks.

CQIQC: If you were to talk to someone considering the U of T post doc program, what advice might you give them? (Or, if this isn’t functional, to anyone in a career in STEM?)

MB: The amount of different directions you are allowed to take as a PDF here are vast. This is the perfect environment for a scientist to thrive.

The best advice I could give anyone considering a PDF position here, or anyone in STEM in general, is to keep their mind open to different things. Get involved in different projects and attempt to understand other people's work. Science is an always-growing field where remaining as up-to-date as one can with respect to other people's work is of the essence when generating new ideas.

CQIQC: Where will you take your research next?

MB: I want to build new research paths and research ideas and, for as long as I can, will continue to do so.