Meet Our Students: Perry World House Graduate Associate Nima Leclerc

June 21, 2023

Nima Leclerc is a Ph.D. student and Dean’s Fellow in electrical engineering. His research focuses on developing scalable silicon-based quantum processors with applications in efficient drug and protein design. Leclerc graduated with a BS in materials science and engineering from Cornell University in 2020. Prior to Penn, he worked at Caltech, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and startup companies Psi Quantum and Kepler, developing next-generation quantum technologies. He is also the founder and president of the Penn Quantum Engineering Graduate Association.

Q: Can you tell me about your studies in electrical engineering and what your research focuses on? 

A: I came from a materials science engineering background. My previous research up until I started my Ph.D. was in device physics; using principles from materials science to be able to design materials with specific functionalities and new types of computing devices. From that, I had a lot of exposure to the electrical engineering aspects of designing computing systems. Quantum computing really caught my attention. We’re living in an age where the building blocks of quantum computing are being developed, and I wanted to be a part of that; so I decided to make that the focus of my Ph.D. I’m currently working in a group with Dr. Anthony Sigillito to develop quantum processors– from developing new control protocols to improving device architecture that would overcome scalability challenges that the industry will face. 

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Leclerc meets with President Ellen Sirleaf, former president of Liberia to discuss education and science innovation in West Africa.

Q: You’ve worked at Caltech and a few startups developing next-generation quantum technologies. How do you think this experience will influence your future work?

A: I had a windy road to get to where I am. My research before was focused on other areas of materials science and less on quantum computing. One thing that inspired me was developing new materials for specific applications. My first introduction to quantum computing was developing new materials and devices to make #qubits, which are the link blocks in quantum computers. I was able to apply those principles to device design for quantum computing. 

Q: What made you interested in being a 2022-23 Perry World House Graduate Associate? What work do you hope to accomplish in this role? 

Perry World House (PWH), the University of Pennsylvania’s hub for global affairs, selected thirty-six students for the 2022-2023 cohort of the Graduate Associates Program. This new class is drawn from across the University’s graduate schools, bringing perspectives and expertise from engineering, law, education, nursing, business, and urban design to core programs for graduate students. Over the course of the coming academic year, the graduate associates will engage in-depth with pressing global challenges; connect with Penn’s community of scholars, students, and experts; and develop skills relevant to shaping policy in their areas of expertise.

A: I was also a 2021-22 Perry World House Graduate Associate. I wanted to continue in the program because I don’t think there are enough highly trained, technical people who bring their knowledge into the policy space where high-level decisions are being made. From allocating budgets in Congress to spinning out a new program in the Department of Defense, I had some ideas about the direction of emerging technologies, what the U.S. can do to make itself more competitive in terms of improving its workforce, and utilizing private-public partnerships to scale up these technologies. I published an op-ed last year in Just Security that speaks on this. I also had an opportunity to speak with a few legislators at the federal level and investors at certain firms to give them high-level guidance on what they should be focusing on. I want to continue doing that on the side or at least be somewhat involved throughout my career. 

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Q: Why did you choose Penn Engineering for your Ph.D.?

A: Penn is one of the top engineering schools. The first programmable computer was invented here in the 1940s. From a technical perspective, including the faculty here, very few places have this level of technical excellence. Not to mention how interdisciplinary it is– not just across different departments within engineering and the sciences, but also across the entire university. Something that appealed to me about Penn over other universities is that there is a lot of collaboration and plenty of opportunities for students who are pursuing a technical degree to be involved in things outside of their own program, including career development opportunities. 

Q: What advice do you have for prospective students considering a Ph.D. in Electrical and Systems Engineering at Penn?

A: I would tell them to keep a broad perspective. Prospective students fall under two categories: those who are more interested in getting into the weeds of science and developing new understanding, and students who are interested in building technologies that will change the course of the future. Penn has a home for both of those. There are plenty of research groups focused on the basic science, and others that are more driven by the application. I encourage students to consider which category they fall into, or which combination of the two categories they are; and, keep a broad perspective in choosing a research group. Students should not be afraid to jump into a completely new field that they are passionate about for their Ph.D. Graduate school provides the ideal setting to pivot toward new career or research interests; don’t be afraid to get started.