Onrí Jay Benally receives 2024 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Doctoral student Onrí Jay Benally is a 2024 recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Benally is currently pursuing his doctoral research under the guidance of Distinguished McKnight Professor and Robert F. Hartmann chair Jian-Ping Wang exploring the world of quantum computing and spintronic devices. 

A Navaho (Diné) tribesman and carpenter, Benally comes to us from the mountains of Red Valley and Oak Springs, Arizona. After graduating from tribal high school, he found himself building off-road electric vehicles at a Utah State University lab led by Professors Curtiz Frazier and Jared Barrett. Two years later, in 2017, he transferred to the University of Minnesota and accepted a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) through the NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at the University. During this time, he worked with Professor Vlad Pribiag (School of Physics and Astronomy) building nanoelectronic devices in the cleanroom for Majorana fermion research. The REU was Benally’s first brush with quantum technology exploration. He returned to the MRSEC REU in summer 2018 and this time he worked with Wang on micro and nanoscale magnetic tunnel junctions for classical computer memory and logic applications. He earned his bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies from the University in 2021. 

While Benally was working on his undergraduate degree, he earned an IBM certificate in quantum computation using Qiskit, and began hypothesizing how metallic-based spintronics and new architectures could be used to support the expansion of quantum supercomputing worldwide. The initial hypothesis motivated him to enter ECE’s doctoral program in fall 2022. 

Reflecting on his interest in quantum technology and his skills as a carpenter, Benally says, "Carpentry was my livelihood on the tribe before completing my undergraduate degree. It is a big part of who I am and has indirectly led to my success as a nanofabricator of spintronics and quantum chips." Benally shares that one of his first toys as a kid was a toy hammer. 

Benally’s research interests revolve around the engineering of quantum computing hardware and spintronic devices. An interdisciplinary area, his research involves the nanofabrication of ultrafast nanoscale magnetic tunnel junctions, cryogenic magnetic random-access memory (cryo-MRAM), and hybrid spintronic quantum processing units (QPUs), systems that can form scalable, sustainable quantum hardware architectures. Under the guidance of Wang, Benally designs and fabricates these systems at the Minnesota Nano Center at the University. Benally addressed these new developments in his keynote speech at the Arizona State University-led Quantum Collaborative Summit this past fall in San Antonio, Texas. Over the upcoming summer, Benally will be a graduate intern with IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, New York. As a quantum hardware engineer, he will be working on cutting edge cryogenic electronics for large-scale superconducting quantum computers.

Benally has accepted the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and feels honored to start delivering on his proposed ideas on supporting quantum supercomputing through spintronics and new architectures. 

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program helps “ensure the quality, vitality, and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States.” Learn about the program and eligibility requirements.