In what is being hailed as a huge academic scoop for Stellenbosch University (SU), internationally esteemed quantum scientist Prof Francesco Petruccione has been appointed as Professor in Quantum Computing at the University’s School for Data Science and Computational Thinking.
Petruccione, whose appointment came into effect on 1 May 2022, joins a group of world-class researchers in the School, including Prof Tulio de Oliveira, who was part of a team which sequenced the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus and who has worked with Petruccione on a number of research projects.
The Italian-born Petruccione has relocated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), where he, most recently, held the position of Pro Vice-Chancellor: Big Data and Informatics.
He has been appointed as the interim director of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS) and will also serve as Professor Extraordinary in the Department of Physics at SU. He is an elected member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and a Fellow of UKZN. He has published about 250 papers in refereed scientific journals.
Petruccione also co-chaired the committee which wrote the Framework for Quantum Technology in SA.
On his new role, Petruccione says: “I am excited to start my new role as Professor of Quantum Computing and interim Director of NITheCS at Stellenbosch University. It is thrilling to be a part of the Stellenbosch University community. I am looking forward to working with everyone on advancing quantum technologies and basic sciences for sustainable development.”
He says his vision is to make SU the capital of quantum technology in South Africa and Africa, despite the fact that the continent “does not have the billions that China, the United States and Europe have”.
Prof Wim de Villiers, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor, says Petruccione’s appointment further cements Stellenbosch University’s vision to be Africa’s leading research-intensive university. “Prof Petruccione’s reputation as a leading scientist in South Africa, his international stature, and his expertise in quantum computing are all benefits to our institution’s progress. His vision for expanding quantum technologies in South Africa through our School for Data Science and Computational Thinking aligns with the University’s vision and future focus, and I’m excited to see where the research and innovation will lead.”
Francesco Petruccione was born in 1961 in Genova, Italy and studied Physics at the University of Freiburg in Germany, where he received his PhD in 1988 and the “Habilitation” degree (Dr. rer. nat. habil.) from the same university in 1994. The latter is a qualification at a higher level than the German doctoral degree.
In 2004, he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at UKZN in Durban (South Africa). In 2005, he was awarded an Innovation Fund grant to set up a Centre for Quantum Technology. In 2007, he was granted the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.
Petruccione, who holds Africa close to his heart, has often said his main focus is to close the gap between fundamental research, innovation and development to solve problems and ensure sustainable development.
Since joining UKZN in 2004, he has built up the biggest research group in quantum technology in South Africa.
“I want to do the same in Stellenbosch – and even better. When we first set up the Big Data and Informatics department, it was marginal. Now the discipline is completely mainstream but we need to do more because this is really a very important topic,” Petruccione says.
“There are countries that invest billions of dollars in quantum computing and quantum technologies, but in South Africa, we are only just beginning. It was only last year that the Department of Science and Innovation approved the National Framework of Quantum Technology.
“You just need to open a newspaper and there is some president or minister talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In order to achieve the goals of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need the most powerful computers and the most secure communications. People are looking at better models for weather forecasting; they seek ways to deal with climate change, to increase productivity in agriculture and improve food production. Quantum technology provides the most precise sensors to detect variations in the gravitational field and can be used in the mining industry and enable very sensitive systems for GPS technology, among others.
“All of these need computer power. That’s why there is a race to build them.”
The Director of the School, Prof Kanshukan Rajaratnam, says Petruccione brings with him a wealth of research, teaching and academic leadership experience.
“Prof Petruccione is an internationally acclaimed National Research Foundation researcher who has spent much of his academic life in South Africa. Through his leadership, he has impacted transformation in his research area. We are excited that he has thrown his dice with us and will help us to build capacity in quantum computing as well as to build more interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research that will impact citizens all over this country and continent.
“At the School, Prof Petruccione will work with departments in faculties, such as the Department of Physics and the division of Computer Science and others to build capacity in his research area. He will also conduct lectures in his area.”
Rajaratnam says Petruccione’s wide-ranging experience will add to the leadership in the School. “His experience in NITheCS’ eight focal fields – Astronomy and Astrophysics, Data Science, Earth Systems Modelling and Climate Change Modelling, Mathematics; Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance, Statistics and Theoretical Physics – will add to the interdisciplinary research experience at the School.
“Just as the School aims to break barriers between faculties to build interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, Prof Petruccione has done exactly the same between universities.”
Petruccione, who loves reading, running and mountain-biking as well as visiting South Africa’s game reserves, is joined, in his move to Stellenbosch, by his wife, Monique Labat, a consultant with her own company.
He says he looks forward to living in Stellenbosch, where “you just walk outside the door and see hills and mountains”.
- The School for Data Science and Computational Thinking was launched in July 2019 with a vision to be a world-class institution in data science and computational thinking in and for Africa. The School, a faculty-level entity, coordinates and conducts interdisciplinary data science and computational thinking research and teaching across the University.