Women of Quantum: Dr. Shahar Keinan and Dr. Traci Clymer of Polaris qb

As a market leader in applying quantum computing to drug design and development, POLARISqb stands out. The company also stands out due to its location, Durham North Carolina. Located away from big urban centers like Boston or New York, POLARISqb has been able to create its own unique community right where it is. To learn more about this community and its talented members, I interviewed POLARISqb CEO Dr. Shahar Keinan and Computational Chemist Dr. Traci Clymer.

Both Clymer and Keinan have backgrounds in chemistry, though Clymer did not immediately transition into the quantum industry. “I wanted to work as a Computational Chemist and with drug design,” Clymer stated. “But I think quantum computing and chemistry are kind of a natural pairing because, in computational chemistry, we’re always looking to incorporate the latest advances in computer science. So, I think it’s only a matter of time before this is going to be something that’s incorporated on a large scale,” Transitioning into the quantum industry proved to be a tricky process for Clymer, who was limited on her job options due to her husband’s position. Upon finding an opening at POLARISqb , Clymer seized her opportunity. “To be honest, it sounded too good to be true,” she said. “It was exactly what I wanted to do. It was not just that I would get to work on drug design, but that I could help to develop technology that is really going to change the field. So now as a Computational Chemist, I get to either find or design molecules that are going to make effective drugs. To do this, I have to know a little organic chemistry, a little biochemistry, some computer science, and now quantum computing.”

As CEO and co-founder of POLARISqb , Keinan saw the connection between quantum computing and drug design almost right away. “I come from a background of looking at large chemical spaces, and finding molecules that are difficult to find,” Keinan explained. “Quantum computers can help us find these molecules using multi-object optimization. So, we’re finding molecules that are good binders to the protein, but also we want a whole set of other properties that would make it a good drug in the end, and that’s something that multi-object optimization      can do on a quantum computer.” Using this pairing, Keinan hoped to create a company that could improve many of the drug development issues, “I came in from the problem side, not the solution side,” she added. “In my role as CEO, I have my fingers in many pies. As many founders know, my work also includes entrepreneurship, fundraising, presenting the work that we do, looking for customers, as well as making sure projects are on time and scientifically rigorous.” Since starting the company, Keinan has been able to oversee the impact of the company, as they are working to optimize the lead time for preclinical drug candidates from five years to just four months, all using quantum computing.

POLARISqb is like many other quantum companies, where much of the staff lacks a strict background in quantum technology. Keinan does not see this as a problem, however, and instead works to make sure the staff learns the basics of quantum computing. “We do a lot of work internally for people to be able to learn,” Keinan said. “We offer a lot of hackathons, and these kinds of hackathons seem to give a lot of information so people can start learning. People are interested in quantum computing and do want to learn it, but there are barriers and it’s important to lower those barriers so people can come in from other industries.”

Keinan has a similar mindset to improving diversity within the quantum industry. “As a woman in this industry, I learned by doing. And the way for leadership is to do things, not just talk about things,” she added. “There’s amazing talent out there, and you just need to open your eyes and find this talent, build those communities out there.” Keinan has also seen that with a boost in diversity, there is a growing sense of a close-knit community. “I think it’s so much more fun to work with other women and other people with different experiences,” Kiernan said. “We want diversity, we want different experiences. Even for POLARISqb , we are looking at a diversity of diseases, a diversity of ideas, diversity of solutions, all of these things.” Thanks to Keinan’s tenacity for inclusion, the POLARISqb community, and the bigger community in Durham has benefitted.

As an employee of POLARISqb, Clymer has a much more boots-on-the-ground approach to diversity and inclusion. As she explained: “I had the issue where I had trouble going after the jobs I wanted because I was tied to a certain region due to my husband having a very technical job. And I have a very technical job. I think that’s common for women scientists and women with Ph.Ds., they tend to be married to someone who is a scientist or has a Ph.D. So, it’s usually the woman who ends up stepping back. Thanks to remote jobs, like mine, we can bring more people into the workforce that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue this opportunity. So, I think it’s important to reach out to women early in their career development so they know about the positions available in this field and they can enter a pipeline that will get them there.”

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry

Science Communicator at JILA

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