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Women of Quantum Technology: Areeba Arbab, Pakistan’s Youngest Quantum Programmer

Areeba Arbab, Pakistan's youngest quantum programmer, discusses learning quantum computing in a nation of protests and terrorism.
By Kenna Hughes-Castleberry posted 16 Nov 2022

This is a bonus article from Inside Quantum Technology. 

In covering the human side of those within the quantum industry, there are many challenges I (Kenna) face as a journalist. The biggest challenge is how to best fit a person’s whole life story into one short article. Nowhere is this challenge more apparent than in telling the story of Areeba Arbab, Pakistan’s youngest quantum programmer. From studying quantum computing while under the looming threat of terrorism to currently living in a period of dangerous political unrest, Areeba’s story is one of strength and resilience. She originally reached out to me via LinkedIn, after how inspired she was by my work for inclusivity in the quantum industry.

From there, we struggled to find a time to meet, with both our busy schedules and the fact that she couldn’t get constant internet access due to protests in her city and Pakistan’s surrounding areas as well as cars being lit on fire in the motorways, blocking her mobility. This resulted in Areeba writing her answers to me in a long, well-written document. I was truly impressed by how visual and imaginative her writing style was while conveying her passion in a novel way. While I’ve heard many challenging stories as a science writer, Areeba’s was by far the most heart-wrenching and inspiring. I will do my best to share as much of the richness of Areeba’s narrative as I can, but obviously, not everything will be included.

I would ask you to read this story and then connect with this amazing young woman over LinkedIn and show her your support. As an industry, Areeba’s story is one we need to model as a metric of success and continue to nourish.

Areeba became first interested in quantum technology when she was gifted an encyclopedia by her uncle who was traveling to Nigeria. “In Nigeria, he didn’t have many options, “Areeba explained. “So, he brought back an encyclopedia that I eventually went on to treat like a bible. However, I fell in love with one page more than the others. It was a page about black holes and to this day, I can recall the butterflies in my stomach as I read the page in the flickering white fluorescent light of the basement.” Because her uncle was a physicist and a mathematician and her father was a fan of science, Areeba found science to be a welcoming space. As she stated: “Overtime, cartoons got replaced by space documentaries, and the pink walls of my bedroom were buried beneath NASA posters. I think every physicist falls in love with space, first-it’s never Newtonian mechanics or projectile motions and stuff that one is drawn to physics by… I was extremely lucky to have been brought up by my father who shared the same fascination as me. He always brought me books and downloaded documentaries on cosmology that we would watch together like a sacred ritual. He himself used to get kicked out of libraries for reading books on quantum mechanics in the main sections instead of the children’s section.”

It was Areeba’s father who originally introduced her to quantum physics. While much of the material was too dense for Areeba, who was a fifth grader at the time, she did read more of the popular physics writers like Michio Kaku and Jim Al-Khalili. “They were my best friends,” Areeba said. “By grade 6, I was given the nickname ‘Hawking’ by my class. Although it was said in order to make fun of my obsession, I had once read that Stephen Hawking’s school nickname was ‘Einstein.’ So, I felt weirdly proud of, perhaps, continuing a sacred tradition. That was when winning a Nobel prize was at the top of my ‘before I turn 18 bucket’ list, but I was generous enough to give myself till 20 to win it. And now that I’m 17, please don’t ask about my progress!” Thanks to her passion for quantum physics, Areeba quickly made an impression on her teachers and fellow classmates. While studying in a province e that was still heavily affected by terrorism, she did her best to thrive. “Target killings and bomb blasts were a norm, and education is Peshawar was scary and dangerous. Hundreds of school children in my mother’s alma-mater were massacred, which lead to the closure of schools for months, and I witnessed a suicide bomb attack on my way back from school once. However, I grew up very well-protected.” She then learned about quantum computing, again from her father, and was more determined than ever to enter the quantum industry.

To get a hands-on experience in quantum computing, Areeba took a course hosted by the non-profit QubitxQubit, with a full scholarship provided by IBM Quantum. After this course, Areeba was selected for the Quantum School for Young Students (QSYS) program at the University of Waterloo, hosted by the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC). “This is a prestigious summer school to which only 40 students from around the world are selected,” Areeba added. “I was the only Pakistani student to be invited to it, and boys older than me, in the most developed cities of Pakistan, from the best institutes, with the best councilors, failed to make it. That was a proud moment for me, that a younger girl from a relatively backward region could beat the smartest college-going boys in the country.” After the QSYS program, Areeba received a badge of quantum excellence for her work at the Qiskit Global Summer school.

Now as Pakistan’s youngest quantum programmer, Areeba finds she holds an important role in her community. “As the only quantum expert in the province, I was hired by the Department of Science and Technology as a technical resource person on the matter,” Areeba explained. “I educated 250 people, so far, in the first-ever Residential STEM summer camp, as part of the Science Popularization Agenda 2022. My efforts were commended in a ceremony and were aware a shield by the Director-General of the Directorate of Science and Technology.” With her expertise, Areeba also co-authored a chapter in the official Qiskit textbook “on solving linear systems of equations on a quantum computer using the HHL program,” she added. As one of Pakistan’s leading quantum experts, Areeba is going to be an incoming experimental research intern for Pakistan’s first experimental setup in researching Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). She is also endeavoring to legislate quantum-friendly policy in the country, as well as teaching weekly classes on quantum computing to middle schoolers – with all the proceeds going to victims of Pakistan’s recent flood disaster.

With a leading role in Pakistan’s local communities, Areeba understands that she plays an influential role in helping to make the industry more diverse and inclusive by inspiring others like her to enter it. She emphasized that dealing with impostor syndrome is the biggest hurdle for making the quantum industry more inclusive, as it removes an individual’s sense of belonging. Areeba gave her own example of this when she mentioned how a group of older boys at her school cornered her and humiliated her for her work in quantum computing. “I was emotionally abused into thinking that someone like me can never be smart enough to know quantum computing,” Areeba said. “[One boy] questioned my credentials implied that I was lying about them, and started asking me technical questions, answers to which he frantically checked in order to ‘catch me.'” This caused Areeba to feel a sense of impostor syndrome, wondering if she really belonged in the quantum industry. “In middle school, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a future quantum scientist smiling back,” she added. “That was because no one had the chance to doubt me yet. Now, I just see a tired face who doesn’t know if she’s cut out for it. People in technical fields already feel crippling impostor syndrome, but people from diverse backgrounds feel the worst of it.”

Like many others, Areeba believes that a clear lack of role models makes the journey harder for women and minority groups. “If others don’t see a person if similar demographics making it, they deem it impossible for someone to be the first,” she said. “Can a Pakhtun woman become a quantum scientist? For people in the West, it is undoubtedly a yes. But here, it is hard to imagine. To women and people of color, I would say don’t let the white men do all the fun things.”

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology.

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