Thought Leaders

New University of Chicago Podcast Promotes Quantum Research

Thought LeadersPaul M. RandVice President of CommunicationUniversity of Chicago

Recently, AZoQuantum spoke with Paul Rand from the University of Chicago about how the Big Brains Podcast, and the new series 'The Day Tomorrow Began', are educating a wider audience on quantum as a research field. 

Please could you introduce yourself and your involvement with the University of Chicago?

My name is Paul M. Rand and I serve as the Vice President of Communications at the University of Chicago. Under the University of Chicago, we also manage two national labs, the Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Laboratory, as well as a medical center. My role is to have a connection with all these different entities and make sure that we are helping them communicate and share their information with as many different audiences as we can. We also have a good handful of global campuses.

What kind of relationship has the University of Chicago had with quantum physics as a field in the past?

One of the things that surprises a lot of folks is that the University of Chicago, up until maybe ten or so years ago, never had an engineering focus or an engineering program. In 2011, we started the Institute of Molecular Engineering, later renamed the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. One of the first groups that came out of that focused on the growing field of quantum engineering.

During that time, early on, it really was arguably the first Ph.D. program focused on quantum engineering that was created in this country. That tells you how fast this whole field has been growing and expanding.

Back in 2017, we launched the Chicago Quantum Exchange, and that was to make sure that we were bringing together academia, industry, and government to collaborate strongly and drive work across quantum engineering.

The other universities that are very tied into this program are the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University. There are also the National Labs and a number of global corporations that are actively part of what's happening at the CQE as well.

So all in, there are about 150 different quantum researchers that are working on this, which really makes it one of the larger teams that are focused on quantum in the world.

Has the University of Chicago continued to invest in quantum science research?

A tremendous amount. When we completed the school it cost about $300 million to get going. We've received some significant gifts, including from the Pritzkers, who the school is named for. The focus on quantum has become very dominant as well, not only nationally with the Department of Energy making a significant play here, but also with the state of Illinois making significant investments into the entire quantum field, which has grown exponentially.

Image Credit: Lia Koltyrina/

In many ways, what's happening in Chicago, particularly with Argonne and Fermi, is that the amount of connectivity in this area is really expanding. I think a lot of people look at what is happening in Chicago as a model to replicate.

Does the Chicago Quantum Exchange have a specific research focus?

There is a relatively broad focus, blurring the traditional distinctions between academia, industry, and national laboratories and developing a quantum ecosystem, but I think one of the things that has received a tremendous amount of attention is the quantum network.

When we start looking at the ability to test new communications devices, security protocols, and algorithms, one of the things that many institutions are really excited about is the ability to create unhackable networks. And this is why you're seeing many large corporations developing and making a play out of it.

It really does seem like somewhere in the world, and certainly out of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, you're hearing developments and breakthroughs that are happening almost on a daily basis.

The series ‘The Day Tomorrow Began’ recently launched at the university on the Big Brains podcast. What was the inspiration behind this series?

The podcast itself is the Big Brains Podcast, and then within that we have the specific series that we started, which is The Day Tomorrow Began.

The Day Tomorrow Began: The genesis of groundbreaking ideas at the University of Chicago

Video Credit: The University of Chicago/

With Big Brains, we just crossed our 100th episode. We have at least 100,000 to 125,000 people engaging with the podcast on a monthly basis.

The intention behind it was twofold. Number one, there's a bit of a disconnect societally. In the US, there is some belief that there is no value coming out of higher education and particularly out of research universities.

On the other hand, I think there's this great belief that we are going to “science our way out of” some of the giant problems that are facing us. The vaccines that came out of the pandemic are an example of this, and I think there's great hope and a belief that for some of these other gigantic challenges that are facing us, we're going to find scientific solutions to them too.

So there's a bit of a dichotomy of, "Oh, I don't have an interest in higher education. There's not a value in it," but 70% of people in the US saying, "We've got some innovation needs for this country and this world and the best place that's going to be coming from is out of universities." So we said, "Why don't we create a podcast that allows us to talk about this?" The name was chosen purposely. It's Big Brains. It's the people that are doing some of the most important breakthrough research anywhere in the world. And a lot of those folk are coming out of the University of Chicago.

If there's something that is really transforming the world, we want to make sure we were talking about it and presenting it in a way that people find compelling.                  

Why did the series choose to focus its latest episode on quantum science?

One thing that I think is now becoming increasingly recognized as quantum advances is the difficulty of finding people who can actually work in the field. It's already being identified as a significant challenge and a significant opportunity, and it’s one of the reasons why we put this whole series together. Most people, when you talk quantum, their eyes cross and glaze over, and they know it's a big deal, but they don't quite understand why.

What we wanted to help people understand is that there is a period of time, or a moment in many cases, when in actuality, ‘tomorrow began.’ It’s not only about things that happen historically; it’s actually a way to help talk about what's happening in this field today.

What kind of audience does the podcast attract?

I think what is really fascinating is that the people that we have on, in many cases, have devoted their entire professional lives to working in very niche areas. So it's a pretty small group of people that are going to really understand what they're saying. I think you can be one of the most educated people and learn something brand new.

What we try to do is help make sure that we let the researchers and the scientists speak for themselves and then we go back and if it wasn't exactly in the clearest way possible we help summarize it and point out why it's significant.

Our hope is that even teachers and educators will find this. A number of schools and institutions are using our content for teaching materials because it gets people interested in the concept of research and what it means.

What are some of the topics that the episode on quantum science engages with?

In a lot of topics we look at, there was a magical day or a period when something major happened. There's not a magical day where all of a sudden the world realized that quantum science was going to revolutionize the world, but in some ways, when the University of Chicago created the country's first program of quantum engineering and quantum sciences, it actually fundamentally changed what was happening.

We also talked about something we call inclusive innovation, because the quantum workforce of tomorrow is not just going to be PhDs. We look at it and say, "Can we go into the community colleges? Can we go into different areas?" This field is opening and expanding so quickly that there are career opportunities being created across the board. This is why our federal government here in the States and in other countries around the world is putting so much money into what's happening in Illinois, knowing that it's going to be a significant developer of a workforce.

Why Quantum Tech Will Change Our Future: The Day Tomorrow Began Podcast

Video Credit: The University of Chicago/

So our hope for this was to give some background and provide some basic explanations about what quantum is and then paint the picture of the growth that is very, very quickly coming. My understanding from what I hear repeatedly is that the workforce is nowhere near where it needs to be. The jobs are coming, and they're coming fast. The idea is that people could listen to this and say, "I want to explore what it would be like to have a role in this field". That really is one of the things we're hoping people take away from this episode in particular.

As people get inspired, they learn, they focus, they get educated, and they can make changes that are truly going to impact the world that we're living in. And that's a big motivator for all of us working as well.

What are your ambitions for episodes to come?

The next one we have coming up is about the person that discovered REM sleep. We're getting suggestions from all over the university to cover fields that were born here and that are being shaped and defined here. I never quite know what we might focus in on and what we will dig up.

What I have found overwhelming is that almost without exception, the people that we're talking to are so passionate and focused. They have spent their working lives on their subject. We’ve done a focus on psychedelic drugs and what research is happening in those areas. We've had conversations in episodes with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We've had interviews with people that talk about the dramatic slowdown of scientific research and breakthroughs and why we have to step it up and do even more.

What kind of engagement have you had with your most recent episode on quantum research?

We’ve had well over 10,000 listens on it, even though it's only been out a week, and thousands more read the transcript or listen to the YouTube version.

What's exciting is that people are tuning in and the listen rate on these episodes is almost always consistent.

There's a great interest in all things that are happening in quantum. In our podcast, we spoke to David Awschclom and Supratik Guha, who are not only with the university but with Argonne National Laboratory. And I think they both, but particularly David, have a gift of explaining things.

One of the things I can encourage folks is if you think it's confusing, take a listen and I bet you come out the other side with a far greater clarity on what quantum is, but even more importantly, what the promise is.

One of the things that I found fascinating, and it comes toward the end of this episode, is when David asks, "Well, what is going to ultimately be the thing that thrusts quantum science and quantum technology to where we're using it on a regular basis?" He talks about how they are actively working on a quantum booster, and when we get to that, he said the growth after that period will just be exponential.

What are the next steps for quantum research at the University of Chicago?

Well, one of the things we're building here, and we've recently announced, is a new engineering and sciences building, and a large part of that building will be dedicated to quantum. There are new members that are becoming part of the Chicago Quantum Exchange with regularity, and we also have a startup laboratory that's over at our Polsky Center, which is called Duality. They are already seeing companies that are created there that are being spun out and being sold for a tremendous amount of money but are then being really used to supercharge growth in quantum in other areas.

There never seems to be a shortage of developments happening in quantum. I think the team over there is obviously very enthusiastic and optimistic about the growth that's coming.

How can people access your content?

People can look up, "University of Chicago Big Brains" or, "University of Chicago Day Tomorrow Began." They can get to all of this content or if they listen to podcasts, they can just simply go onto Apple or Spotify or Stitch or any of the other platforms. There they can type in Big Brains and they'll have plenty to listen to on their next car ride.

More from AZoQuantum: Entangled Atoms for Quantum Sensors

About Paul Rand

Paul M. Rand is the Vice President of Communications for the University of Chicago. He leads the development of strategic and digital communications in support of academic programs, University initiatives and institutional priorities. He collaborates with units across the University to support the momentum of the University’s research and teaching initiatives around the world, support and strengthen engagement with the University of Chicago community, and build upon the institution’s reputation as an intellectual destination. Rand has direct oversight of the Office of Communications and UChicago Creative, and supporting oversight of communications at Argonne National Laboratory, Femi National Laboratory and UChicago Medicine.

Before joining the University, Rand was Chairman at Critical Mass/Zócalo (a division of Omnicom Group).  He founded and led two successful agencies: Corporate Technology Communications, one of the nation’s largest independent public relations firms, and Zócalo Group, a full-service digital and social media agency. Both agencies were acquired by Omnicom Group.  Based in Chicago, Zócalo Group received numerous industry awards for its work in digital communications, public relations, social media, and reputation building. Rand’s previous roles include serving as chief digital officer and chief growth and innovation officer at Ketchum, a global public relations firm, and as executive vice president at Golin. He started his career at Burson-Marsteller in Chicago.  Rand was also the co-founder and president of the Capable Kid Counseling Centers, a nationally recognized system of outpatient mental health counseling centers for children and their families.  The Capable Kid Centers were acquired by National Medical Enterprises (later acquired by Tenet Healthcare Corporation).

In addition to his professional role, Rand participates in a number of civic organizations including the Economic Club of Chicago and the Executive Club of Chicago. He is a member of Ivy+ and serves on the advisory board for the American Association of Universities (AAU) and is a member of the board of directors of Chicago Public Media.

Rand holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a master’s degree in business administration and public policy from DePaul University. He is the creator and host of the Big Brain’s podcast, Adweek’s Branded Podcast of the Year and recipient of the Grand Gold CASE award as the best higher education podcast.  Rand is the author of Highly Recommended: Harnessing the Power of Word of Mouth and Social Media to Build Your Brand and Your Business (McGraw Hill). 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Skyla Baily

Written by

Skyla Baily

Skyla graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSocSc Hons in Social Anthropology. During her studies, Skyla worked as a research assistant, collaborating with a team of academics, and won a social engagement prize for her dissertation. With prior experience in writing and editing, Skyla joined the editorial team at AZoNetwork in the year after her graduation. Outside of work, Skyla’s interests include snowboarding, in which she used to compete internationally, and spending time discovering the bars, restaurants and activities Manchester has to offer!


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