Caltech attracts some truly unique individuals from all across the globe with a passion for figuring things out. But there was one young woman on campus this past summer whose journey towards scientific research was uniquely inspiring.
Sultana spent the summer at Caltech in the SURF program, working on next generation quantum error correction codes under the supervision of Dr. John Preskill. As she wrapped up her summer project, returning to her “normal” undergraduate education in Arizona, I had the honor of helping her document her remarkable journey. This is her story:
My name is Sultana. I was born in Afghanistan. For years I was discouraged and outright prevented from going to school by the war. It was not safe for me because of the active war and violence in the region, even including suicide bombings. Society was still recovering from the decades long civil war, the persistent influence of a dethroned, theocratically regressive regime and the current non-functioning government. These forces combined to make for a very insecure environment for a woman. It was tacitly accepted that the only place safe for a woman was to remain at home and stay quiet. Another consequence of these circumstances was that the teachers at local schools were all male and encouraged the girls to not come to school and study. What was the point if at the end of the day a woman’s destiny was to stay at home and cook?
For years, I would be up every day at 8am and every waking hour was devoted to housework and preparing the house to host guests, typically older women and my grandmother’s friends. I was destined to be a homemaker and mother. My life had no meaning outside of those roles.
My brothers would come home from school, excited about mathematics and other subjects. For them, it seemed like life was full of infinite possibilities. Meanwhile I had been confined to be behind the insurmountable walls of my family’s compound. All the possibilities for my life had been collapsed, limited to a single identity and purpose.
At fourteen I had had enough. I needed to find a way out of the mindless routine and depressing destiny. And more specifically, I wanted to understand how complex, and clearly powerful, human social systems, such as politics, economics and culture, combined to create overtly negative outcomes like imbalance and oppression. I made the decision to wake up two hours early every day to learn English, before taking on the day’s expected duties.
My grandfather had a saying, “If you know English, then you don’t have to worry about where the food is going to come from.”
He taught himself English and eventually became a professor of literature and humanities. He had even encouraged his five daughters to pursue advanced education. My aunts became medical doctors and chemists (one an engineer, another a teacher). My mother became a lecturer at a university, a profession she would be forced to leave when the Mujaheddin came to power.
I started by studying newspapers and any book I could get my hands on. My hunger for knowledge proved insatiable.
When my father got the internet, the floodgates of information opened. I found and took online courses through sites like Khan Academy and, later, Coursera.
I was intrigued by discussions between my brothers on mathematics. Countless pages of equations and calculations could propagate from a single, simple question; just like how a complex and towering tree can emerge from a single seed.
Khan Academy provided a superbly structured approach to learning mathematics from scratch. Most importantly, mathematics did not rely on a mastery of English as a prerequisite.
Over the next few years I consumed lesson after lesson, expanding my coursework into physics. I would supplement this unorthodox yet structured education with a more self-directed investigation into philosophy through books like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. While math and physics helped me develop confidence and ability, ultimately, I was still driven by trying to understand the complexities of human behavior and social systems.
To further develop my hold on English I enrolled in a Skype-based student exchange program and made a critical friend in Emily from Iowa. After only a few conversations, Emily suggested that my English was so good that I should consider taking the SAT and start applying for schools. She soon became a kind of college counselor for me.
Even though my education was stonewalled by an increasingly repressive socio-political establishment, I had the full support of my family. There were no SAT testing locations in Afghanistan. So when it was clear to my family I had the potential to get a college education, my uncle took me across the border into Pakistan, to take the SAT. However, a passport from Afghanistan was required to take the test and, when it was finally granted, it had to be smuggled across the border. Considering that I had no formal education and little time to study for the SAT, I earned a surprisingly competitive score on the exam.
My confidence soared and I convinced my family to make the long trek to the American embassy and apply for a student visa. I was denied in less than sixty seconds! They thought I would end up not studying and becoming an economic burden. I was crushed. And my immaturely formed vision of the world was clearly more idealized than the reality that presented itself and slammed its door in my face. I was even more confused by how the world worked and I immediately became invested in understanding politics.
The New York Times
Emily was constantly working in the background on my behalf, and on the other side of the world, trying to get the word out about my struggle. This became her life’s project, to somehow will me into a position to attend a university. New York Times writer Nicholas Kristoff heard about my story and we conducted an interview over Skype. The story was published in the summer of 2016.
The New York Times opinion piece was published in June. Ironically, I didn’t have much say or influence on the opinion-editorial piece. I felt that the piece was overly provocative.
Even now, because family members still live under the threat of violence, I will not allow myself to be photographed. Suffice to say, I never wanted to stir up trouble, or call attention to myself. Even so, the net results of that article are overwhelmingly positive. I was even offered a scholarship to attend Arizona State University; that was, if I could secure a visa.
I was pessimistic. I had been rejected twice already by what should have been the most logical and straightforward path towards formal education in America. How was this special asylum plea going to result in anything different? But Nicholas Kristoff was absolutely certain I would get it. He gave my case to an immigration lawyer with a relationship to the New York Times. In just a month and a half I was awarded humanitarian parole. This came with some surprising constraints, including having to fly to the U.S. within ten days and a limit of four months to stay there while applying for asylum. As quickly as events were unfolding, I didn’t even hesitate.
As I was approaching America, I realized that over 5,000 miles of water would now separate me from the most influential forces in my life. The last of these flights took me deep into the center of America, about a third of the way around the planet.
The clock was ticking on my time in America – at some point, factors and decisions outside of my control would deign that I was safe to go back to Afghanistan – so I exhausted every opportunity to obtain knowledge while I was isolated from the forces that would keep me from formal education. I petitioned for an earlier than expected winter enrollment at Arizona State University. In the meantime, I continued my self-education through edX classes (coursework from MIT made available online), as well as with Khan Academy and Coursera.
The answer came back from Arizona State University. They had granted me enrollment for the winter quarter. In December of 2016, I flew to the next state in my journey for intellectual independence and began my first full year of formal education at the largest university in America. Mercifully, my tenure in Phoenix began in the cool winter months. In fact, the climate was very similar to what I knew in Afghanistan.
However, as summer approached, I began to have a much different experience. This was the first time I was living on my own. It took me a while to be accustomed to that. I would generally stay in my room and study, even avoiding classes. The intensifying heat of the Arizona sun ensured that I would stay safely and comfortably encased inside. And I was actually doing okay. At first.
Happy as I was to finally be a part of formal education, it was in direct conflict with the way in which I had trained myself to learn. The rebellious spirit which helped me defy the cultural norms and risk harm to myself and my family, the same fire that I had to continuously stoke for years on my own, also made me rebel against the system that actively wanted me to learn. I constantly felt that I had better approaches to absorb the material and actively ignored the homework assignments. Naturally, my grades suffered and I was forced to make a difficult internal adjustment. I also benefited from advice from Emily, as well as a cousin who was pursuing education in Canada.
As I gritted my teeth and made my best attempts to adopt the relatively rigid structures of formal education, I began to feel more and more isolated. I found myself staying in my room day after day, focused simply on studying. But for what purpose? I was aimless. A machine of insatiable learning, but without any specific direction to guide my curiosity. I did not know it at the time, but I was desperate for something to motivate me.
The ripples from the New York Times piece were still reverberating and Sultana was contacted by author Betsy Devine. Betsy was a writer who had written a couple of books with notable scientists. Betsy was particularly interested in introducing Sultana to her husband, Nobel prize winner in physics, Frank Wilczek.
The first time I met Frank Wilczek was at lunch with with him and his wife. Wilczek enjoys hiking in the mountains overlooking surrounding Phoenix and Betsy suggested that I join Frank on an early morning hike. A hike. With Frank Wilczek. This was someone whose book, A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design, I had read while in Afghanistan. To say that I was nervous is an understatement, but thankfully we fell into an easy flow of conversation. After going over my background and interests he asked me if I was interested in physics. I told him that I was, but I was principally interested in concepts that could be applied very generally, broadly – so that I could better understand the underpinnings of how society functions.
He told me that I should pursue quantum physics. And more specifically, he got me very excited about the prospects of quantum computers. It felt like I was placed at the start of a whole new journey, but I was walking on clouds. I was filled with a confidence that could only be generated by finding oneself comfortable in casual conversation with a Nobel laureate.
Immediately after the hike I went and collected all of the relevant works Wilczek had suggested, including Dirac’s “The Principles of Quantum Mechanics.”
With a new sense of purpose, I immersed myself in the formal coursework, as well as my own, self-directed exploration of quantum physics. My drive was rewarded with all A’s in the fall semester of my sophomore year.
That same winter Nicholas Kristoff had published his annual New York Times opinion review of the previous year titled, “Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History.” I was mentioned briefly.
It was the start of the second semester of my sophomore year, and I was starting to feel a desire to explore applied physics. I was enrolled in a graduate-level seminar class in quantum theory that spring. One of the lecturers for the class was a young female professor who was interested in entropy, and more importantly, how we can access seemingly lost information. In other words, she wanted access to the unknown.
To that end, she was interested in gauge/gravity duality models like the one meant to explain the black hole “firewall” paradox, or the Anti-de Sitter space/conformal field theory (AdS/CFT) correspondence that uses a model of the universe where space-time has negative, hyperbolic curvature.
Unbeknownst to me, a friend of that young professor had read the Times opinion article. The article not only mentioned that I had been teaching myself string theory, but also that I was enrolled at Arizona State University and taking graduate level courses. She asked the young professor if she would be interested in meeting me.
The young professor invited me to her office, she told me about how black holes were basically a massive manifestation of entropy, and the best laboratory by which to learn the true nature of information loss, and how it might be reversed. We discussed the possibility of working on a research paper to help her codify the quantum component for her holographic duality models.
I immediately agreed. If there was anything in physics as difficult as understanding human social, religious and political dynamics, it was probably understanding the fundamental nature of space and time. Because the AdS/CFT model of spacetime was negatively curved, we could employ something called holographic quantum error correction to create a framework by which the information of a bulk entity (like a black hole) can be preserved at its boundary, even with some of its physical components (particles) becoming corrupted, or lost.
I spent the year wrestling with, and developing, quantum error correcting codes for a very specific kind of black hole. I learned that information has a way of protecting itself from decay through correlations. For instance, a single logical quantum bit (or “qubit”) of information can be represented, or preserved, by five stand-in, or physical, qubits. At a black hole’s event horizon, where entangled particles are pulled apart, information loss can be prevented as long as less than three-out-of-five of the representative physical qubits are lost to the black hole interior. The original quantum information can be recalled by using a quantum code to reverse this “error”.
By the end of my sophomore year I was nominated to represent Arizona State University at an inaugural event supporting undergraduate women in science. The purpose of the event was to help prepare promising women in physics for graduate school applications, as well as provide information on life as a graduate student. The event, called FUTURE of Physics, was to be held at Caltech.
I mentioned the nomination to Frank Wilczek and he excitedly told me that I must use the opportunity to meet Dr. John Preskill, who was at the forefront of quantum computing and quantum error correction. He reminded me that the best advice he could give anyone was to “find interesting minds and bother them.”
I spent two exciting days at Caltech with 32 other young women from all over the country on November 1st and 2nd of 2018. I was fortunate to meet John Preskill. And of course I introduced myself like any normal human being would, by asking him about the Shor factoring algorithm. I even got to attend a Wednesday group meeting with all of the current faculty and postdocs at IQIM. When I returned to ASU I sent an email to Dr. Preskill inquiring about potentially joining a short research project with his team.
I was extremely relieved when months later I received a response and an invitation to apply for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at Caltech. Because Dr. Preskill’s recent work has been at the forefront of quantum error correction for quantum computing it was relatively straightforward to come up with a research proposal that aligned with the interests of my research adviser at ASU.
One of the major obstacles to efficient and widespread proliferation of quantum computers is the corruption of qubits, expensively held in very delicate low-energy states, by environmental interference and noise. People simply don’t, and should not, have confidence in practical, everyday use of quantum computers without reliable quantum error correction. The proposal was to create a proof that, if you’re starting with five physical qubits (representing a single logical qubit) and lose two of those qubits due to error, you can work backwards to recreate the original five qubits, and recover the lost logical qubit in the context of holographic error correcting codes. My application was accepted, and I made my way to Pasadena at the beginning of this summer.
The temperate climate, mountains and lush neighborhoods were a welcome change, especially with the onslaught of relentless heat that was about to envelope Phoenix.
Even at a campus as small as Caltech I felt like the smallest, most insignificant fish in a tiny, albeit prestigious, pond. But soon I was being connected to many like-minded, heavily motivated mathematicians and physicists, from all walks of life and from every corner of the Earth. Seasoned, young post-docs, like Grant Salton and Victor Albert introduced me to HaPPY tensors. HaPPY tensors are a holographic tensor network model developed by Dr. Preskill and colleagues meant to represent a toy model of AdS/CFT. Under this highly accessible and world-class mentorship, and with essentially unlimited resources, I wrestled with HaPPY tensors all summer and successfully discovered a decoder that could recover five qubits from three.
This was the ultimate confidence booster. All the years of doubting myself and my ability, due to educating myself in a vacuum, lacking the critical feedback provided by real mentors, all disappeared.
Now returning to ASU to finish my undergraduate education, I find myself still thinking about what’s next. I still have plans to expand my proof, extending beyond five qubits, to a continuous variable representation, and writing a general algorithm for an arbitrary N layer tensor-network construction. My mentors at Caltech have graciously extended their support to this ongoing work. And I now dream to become a professor of physics at an elite institution where I can continue to pursue the answers to life’s most confusing problems.
My days left in America are not up to me. I am applying for permanent amnesty so I can continue to pursue my academic dreams, and to take a crack at some of the most difficult problems facing humanity, like accelerating the progress towards quantum computing. I know I can’t pursue those goals back in Afghanistan. At least, not yet. Back there, women like myself are expected to stay at home, prepare food and clean the house for everybody else.
Little do they know how terrible I am at housework – and how much I love math.