As a high school student in Mount Pearl Newfoundland, a small community of St. John’s Newfoundland, Mark Penney’s nascent interest in mathematics and science was set afire by his chemistry teacher, who spent his lunch breaks helping a few interested students do Advance Placement university level courses, and by his mathematics teachers who encouraged Mark to compete in local and provincial mathematics problem-solving contests.
Mark studied applied mathematics and physics at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, theoretical physics at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario and mathematics at the University of Toronto. These studies paved the way for what Mark calls the most fulfilling and productive years of his life, studying the mathematical aspects of topological phases at Oxford University.
During his time at Oxford and during sojourns at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley California and the Hausdorff Research Institute for Mathematics in Bonn Germany Mark has had the opportunity to meet and work with world-class researchers; Oxford’s unique college system has afforded Mark the opportunity to meet and become friends with many brilliant and inspiring people who are studying topics ranging from classics to history to the arts.
Quantum computing is the love child of physics, mathematics and computer science. Working on the minute scale of atoms, quantum computers could work millions of times faster than conventional computers and look at problems that are so complex, that they require more computing power than any modern day computer could supply.
Despite the immense efforts being undertaken by research groups around the world, there are significant hurdles in the path to realizing this technology. One of the great challenges of quantum computing is to protect the computers from external environmental factors, which can negate any advantage they have over conventional computers. During his time at Oxford, Mark has has focused on removing this obstacle by doing research on materials that are highly resistance to influences from their environment. These materials, known as topological phases, are typically so thin that they are effectively two-dimensional. As you can imagine, this extreme thinness makes engineering materials to exhibit topological phases very difficult. Mark’s project has been to develop the mathematical models and tools needed to study real world, three-dimensional topological phases. This research directly contributes to the broader theoretical background that is attempting to ultimately solve the dilemma of protecting quantum computers from external environmental factors.
In the long term Mark would like to move from the theoretical to the more practical side of this subject. We do not know today what the quantum computer of tomorrow will look like or what it will be capable of achieving, but Mark’s work is bringing the future world of quantum computing that much closer to reality.
Mark, who is so accomplished in his field, is a tender 26 years old as this profile is being written. He plans to do post-doctoral work in North America after he is awarded his DPhil in Mathematics from Oxford University in 2017. Ultimately, he would like to be a professor in a mathematical area related to quantum computing, and return to Canada with the new skills and knowledge that he has acquired abroad.
The CCSF is proud to have Mark Penney among our distinguished scholars.