Reaching for the Stars

Sasha Nanda, a third-year physics major at California Institute of Technology, takes time to talk about applying for an internship at NASA and the teacher at Jumeirah College Dubai who inspired her passion for science.

How did you learn about the NASA internship?
I knew of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab from prior independent research as well as reading about quantum computing and quantum information theory. I looked on the NASA website and saw that they offered internships and decided to apply.

What was the process of application?
I submitted my resume and then I heard back from the lab principal investigator who scheduled an interview with me. After that round, I was matched to a project and interviewed by the project manager (who was my research advisor for the summer) to see if I would be a good fit, then I was given an offer.

How did you find out you got the internship and what was your first response?
I formally found out that I was offered the internship via email and I accepted the offer immediately!

What projects have you been working on and tell us about your role. What is the most important part of this project for you?
A few months ago, Google released a quantum API called Cirq. This API is designed to allow public users to interact with Google’s upcoming quantum hardware. I was working on developing software for Cirq. I worked on implementing graph theory algorithms in Cirq more efficiently using novel machine learning techniques. We hope that these algorithms will soon be applicable to finance, planning, scheduling, and so on.

How does this kind of internship help young students like you? Would you encourage other students in the UAE to apply?
I have learned key facets of research and software engineering. The internship solidified my research and career goals, and gave me a better understanding of both academia and industry. I would encourage anyone pursuing a degree in physics or computer science to apply for such internships.

What are the most exciting things you got the opportunity to do at NASA?
I worked closely with incredible researchers at the forefront of quantum computing. I also visited the real D-Wave quantum computer, the supercomputing facility, as well as the NASA robotics facility, which is housed at the NASA Ames Research Centre.

How did school help prepare you for the internship?
I studied at Jumeirah College, where I was provided with a strong foundation in mathematics and science, especially via the A-level curriculum. This base helped me navigate the demanding physics and computer science courses at Caltech.

When did you realise you like maths and science? Did any teachers at school help you?
I have loved maths since I was little, when my mum used to read me bedtime stories about Galileo, Curie, and Nightingale. My version of playing outside in the grass was solving puzzles and crunching numbers. I also owe a lot to my middle school and high school physics teacher, Mr. Bonnar, who recommended and lent me books on quantum physics and the standard model; we often had in-depth discussions about topics that weren’t typically covered in high school.

What are your future aspirations?
After graduating from Caltech, I hope to spend a year or two working on quantum computing research in industry, and then go to graduate school to pursue my PhD in the US.