Max Parsons

Q&A With the New Director of the Quantum Technology and Training Testbed (QT3) Laboratory, Max Parsons.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself and your experience prior to becoming the new director for the QT3 Lab.

      I grew up in a working class family in the northeastern suburbs of Massachusetts, and I am a first-generation college graduate.  My father worked as a firefighter and an electrician and my mother stayed at home with my 3 siblings and I.  While my parents weren’t educated beyond high school, popular science specials on TV were always events in our house (Nova on PBS, the Discovery Channel back when it actually aired science coverage– lots of stuff representing high-energy physics, gravitation, the international space station, human genome project).  TV and popular science books from the local library gave me an early interest in science.  I was really lucky to grow up at a time and place where need-based financial aid was becoming available for some of the wealthier college preparatory schools and I was able to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, MA for free.  My experience at Andover really accelerated my path to physics nerd-dom: there was an observatory with a CCD camera and even a spectrometer to play with, and lots of really wonderful, dedicated science teachers.  

      I went on to college at Harvard, where I fell in love with experimental physics working in the laboratory of Prof. John Doyle.  John let me in the lab in the fall of my freshman year and I stuck around until I graduated.  The experience in John’s lab was just wonderful– there was a real tinker-y, maker-space, DIY sort of attitude and the graduate students were kind and welcoming to me.  I had fantastic mentors there.  I was able to stay at Harvard for graduate school where I moved down the hall to work in the lab of Markus Greiner, building a machine to laser-cool atoms in an optical lattice and image them optically with single-atom resolution.  We used this to perform quantum simulation experiments, studying the physics of 2D interacting fermi gases (Mott insulators, antiferromagnetism, etc.).

      At the end of graduate school I worried I’d regret just continuing in academia without seeing the “real world,” and I got a job in R&D at Facebook working on tiny projectors for augmented reality glasses (in retrospect, it was an odd notion to consider this the “real world”).  I moved out to Seattle for that job in 2016, and have mostly been here since (except for a 10 month “sabbatical” helping to start Atom Computing in Berkeley).  While the technical problems at both Facebook and Atom Computing were certainly interesting, I eventually felt myself drawn back toward academia.  I really appreciated my teachers and the educational experiences I had throughout my life, and was interested in this QT3 role because I want to do my part to help mentor students in the same way that I was helped.  It’s also a huge plus that I get to continue to work on cutting-edge technical problems.

Q: Tell us about the QT3 lab- what tools and projects are currently going on?

      We’ve got a number of projects going on, summarized on our website.  The projects essentially split into research instruments and instructional lab instruments, though the line can be blurred.

      The research instruments are meant to provide QuantumX, and ultimately the larger PNW quantum community, with resources to support the development of quantum technologies.  We have built a room-temperature scanning confocal microscope that can do photoluminescence spectroscopy as well as single-photon counting to characterize new materials and quantum emitters.  The microscope also has radio-antenna capabilities so researchers could do confocal scans for optically-detected magnetic resonance and is generally highly customizable based on the needs of researchers.  We are also planning to build a cryogenic version of the confocal microscope, which will likely have the capability of doing optical near-field probe and electrical measurements.  Finally, we are working on a quantum diamond processor testbed.  The aim of this testbed is to control a quantum register of up to ~10 spin qubits using a single NV center in diamond.  The electronic states of the NV center provide optical readout for the electron spin, which can be used to measure the local spin bath (nearby nitrogen nucleus, and carbon-13 nuclei in the diamond lattice).  Individual spins in the bath can be controlled and entangled with radio-frequency pulses, enabling a quantum processor.  When complete, this testbed will be a cutting edge tool for quantum computation and quantum simulation research on campus.

      Currently we have three instructional laboratory systems, designed to give students in courses and independent/capstone projects hands-on access to quantum technologies.  The first is a simpler version of the diamond quantum processor testbed (at room temperature, and measuring an ensemble of NV centers instead of just one).  Students will be able to perform quantum control experiments– state preparation and readout of the electron spin, Rabi flopping (single qubit gates), Ramsey interferometry and decoherence measurements, etc.  The second apparatus is an ion trap, where students can trap macroscopic pollen particles in air within an oscillating electric trap and can observe secular and micromotion of the particles just as in ion traps used in quantum computing experiments.  The final apparatus is a commercial system that uses photon qubits developed by quTools.  It actually offers a pretty wide suite of quantum experiments: demonstration of entanglement, transmission of quantum encrypted bitstreams via the BB84 protocol for quantum key distribution, Hong-Ou-Mandel interference, Tomography of entangled photon pairs, to name a few.

Q: What do you think makes the QT3 Lab unique?

      I think that it’s unique to have a space with such a broad variety of instrumentation, that also serves a scope all the way from hands-on course instruction to cutting edge research.  This adds even more variety to the technical complexity of quantum research: we write software to model physics and control instrumentation, we design and build electronic instrumentation, optics, cryogenics, and then we need to manage and process all of the data that comes out and compare to our models.  This technical variety will provide students with valuable experience for any future career in science and technology, whether inside or outside academia, related to quantum or not.  At the same time, all of this fun engineering work is toward actually seeing all of the counterintuitive weirdness of quantum mechanics with our own eyes!  That seeing it with our eyes (or “feeling it in our bones” as my freshman physics professor, Howard Georgi, used to say) creates intuition through experience, giving a new generation of scientists the insight to propel quantum technologies forward.

Q: What visions do you have for the QT3 Lab in the coming years?

      My biggest priority is to make QT3 a space for students to feel belonging, to learn from one another, and to have a good time doing science.  With any skills that one develops, the biggest factor that determines improvement, especially at the novice stages, is just time spent practicing the skill.  Consistent practice is a lot easier if you want to be in the lab!  A strong, supportive community will make that happen.  I want to see students develop relationships from time spent together tackling hard problems, supporting each other when things inevitably don’t work as planned, and teaching and learning primarily from one another.  It’s our mission in QT3 to enable research and teaching in quantum information science on campus, and of course I’d like to see us grow in that mission: developing and improving our user tools and instructional labs, publishing research.  I feel strongly that the path to getting there is developing a lab community that students want to be a part of and so that is where my vision is focused at the moment.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like the QuantumX community at UW to know about the lab?

      We are happy to have you involved and eager to collaborate, whether on course instruction, capstone or other individual projects, ideas for new tools in the lab, or publishable research.  My door is always open to members of the QuantumX community.  I’ve had my hands quite full just getting up to speed in this new role, and proactively meeting all of you keeps getting pushed down in my to-do list (but I will get to it!).  In the meantime, please just reach out to me and let’s walk through the lab and chat.  QT3 is a resource for you and I need to hear ideas from the community on how best to develop the lab for it to be successful.

The QT3 website has a new look! Check it out here.

Get in contact with Max or inquire about the QT3 Lab at