I often get asked how I came to be an experimental quantum physicist. The general consensus when I tell people what I do seems to be that it’s something extraordinary. I will admit that it is perhaps unusual to be an autistic woman in this field, but things are definitely changing and I hope that over time we can overcome the gatekeeping and barriers keeping minority groups from physics. I’d like to recognise upfront that although I am part of several minority groups in physics, I benefit a lot from my background, class and white privilege. That aside, hopefully openly sharing my journey to where I am now can help others who want to do the same by providing an example of a route into experimental quantum physics research in the UK education system.
Where it all began
So, the start of this story is sometime during high school. I was always a science lover but also had a creative streak, excelling in art and music. So choosing a subject to pursue as a career was very difficult and took a lot of thought. Eventually, I settled on working towards applying for a science degree after high school and keeping my creative pursuits as hobbies. My aim was to enter science research so that I could make new discoveries and use my creativity in conjunction with my analytical side. So the next question was ‘which science do I want to focus on?’. For a long time, I thought I would either do chemistry or natural sciences at university. Looking back, I think this is probably because I didn’t think I was smart enough to do physics and because of all the gender stereotyping we’re exposed to from a very young age.
Luckily I changed my mind and decided that physics was for me, even if I wasn’t smart enough or suited to it! I distinctly remember one chemistry lesson when I was in year 9 or 10 where we were learning about atomic orbitals and the concept of ‘electron spin’ was mentioned in passing. This was something so strange and weird to me that I instantly became fascinated and asked my chemistry teacher to explain more about it. She told me that I should ask a physics teacher about it— so I did! They couldn’t help me all that much but told me to read about quantum physics if I wanted to understand it. And so my fascination with all things regarding applied quantum physics began and I admitted to myself that physics was the subject for me. That chemistry lesson showed me that physics underpins all other natural sciences and really digs deep into the fundamental workings of the physical universe.
A bump in the road
So, having decided that I wanted to apply for physics degrees and achieving pretty solid GCSE grades (all A*s and As), I chose to do physics, maths and chemistry for my A-levels. This was great until my mental health started to deteriorate. At the time we had no idea why and couldn’t identify any ‘triggers’, but looking back I think I can safely say that social difficulties at school linked to my undiagnosed autism were probably a key factor.
What I now know is that autistic girls, in particular, do a lot of ‘masking’ or ‘camouflaging’ so we go unnoticed for a long time. It’s also very common for us to develop mental health conditions around the age of puberty due to the social world around us becoming more complicated and difficult for us to understand and navigate. I slipped into a pretty severe depression and my anxiety became worse and worse. I spent whole weeks where I didn’t say a word to anyone at school and I wanted to just disappear. Then, the stress must have become pretty bad as it seemed to physically manifest in the form of shingles. This gave me a great excuse not to go to school and consequently I missed over 10 weeks of school during my AS-level year.
Unsurprisingly, my AS-level results were fairly abysmal, especially by my extremely high standards. I had to retake all of the exams again in the A-level year alongside my A-level exams and I was no longer one of the students everyone expected to go to ‘Oxbridge’.
It was UCAS time. Time to make the decision as to which degree courses we wanted to apply to and hoping that we’d get into one of our chosen universities. This is an incredibly hard decision for everyone to make. There are so many factors to consider that it’s pretty overwhelming. Somehow, my school had predicted that I would get AAA grades at A-level despite the issues with my AS exams.
I decided that there were three criteria that the courses that I chose had to meet:
Small university or campus-based
A good feeling when I visited it in person
Really interesting research that I could see myself doing
I ended up applying to integrated masters courses (MPhys) at Lancaster, St Andrews, York and Surrey. The latter was my first choice despite it having the lowest grade requirements. This was mostly because the course looked great and had lots of modules related to quantum technology. As well as this, I read about the research that the physics department did and several groups sparked my interest including the medical physics group and the photonics & quantum sciences group. A huge bonus was the emphasis that Surrey puts on employability and careers. It’s one of the only MPhys courses in the UK which has a masters research year where you are placed in industry or another academic lab so you get work experience alongside doing your research and writing your dissertation.
A-level results day
Results day came. I didn’t do as well as I had hoped. But I also didn’t do as awfully as I was expecting. My grades weren’t good enough to get me onto the MPhys course at Surrey, but they offered me a place on the physics BSc course instead.
I almost didn’t take up my place, but I’m glad I went for it as by the end of the second year I had a good enough average grade to transfer onto the MPhys I had originally applied for. I think it is the case for a lot of integrated masters courses that the first 2 years are the same modules as the BSc and then they diverge, so it is possible to do this ‘upgrade’ at the end of the second year if the university has evidence that you can handle the integrated masters.
Deciding on a speciality
One thing I haven’t yet explored is my decision to opt for the straight ‘physics’ degree over one of the more specific degrees such as ‘physics with nuclear astrophysics’. Surrey even had an awesome sounding ‘physics with quantum technologies’ option, but ultimately I decided not to chose this course.
Why? The flexibility. With a straight physics course, I could choose between all of the optional modules. Whereas in more specialised courses some of the optional modules are pre-chosen for you. I wanted to be able to take the modules that sounded interesting and sparked my interest. As it happens, I did end up taking all of the ‘physics with quantum technologies’ modules, but I was thankful for the wide choice that I had. Physics is such a broad subject and there’s a lot to explore during undergraduate. In my opinion, it’s best to get an idea of a broad variety of subjects, at least initially, so that you can make an informed decision about specialising based on experience.
At the beginning of our third year, we had to decide where we wanted to go for our research placement. The physics department had some placements advertised for us MPhys students, but almost all of them were in nuclear physics. A small group of us decided to band together to request some help with finding solid-state physics-related placements. Luckily, the lecturer we went to helped us all find placements.
I was offered an unpaid placement working on quantum computing in Vancouver and offered an interview to work at the Centre for Integrated Photonics as a research intern close to my parent’s home. I ended up going for the latter and I’m glad I did! At this time during my degree, I had slipped into another deep depression and with the support of my family, I got treatment for this as well as getting a diagnosis of autism. If I had gone to Canada I am not sure I would still be here today.
On top of this, I really loved the research itself! I was simulating, testing, designing and analysing electroabsorption modulated lasers for long-haul telecommunications. It was really the first time I saw applied quantum physics in action and I could appreciate how impactful this kind of research is. I was, in some way, making the internet faster.
I also got experience working in a project team and got to see the workings of a small company first-hand. I found out that I work well to deadlines and I’m able to clearly present my work to colleagues when I need to. My placement also made me realise that I was good at experimental research as well as computational research, I loved pushing the boundaries of applied quantum physics, I wanted to do a PhD to become an even better researcher, and semiconductor physics was where I wanted to specialise within the field of quantum technology.
Graduation and PhD applications
So, I completed my research year with flying colours and wrote my first ever dissertation titled ‘Investigating the DCOpto-electrical & Large Signal Characteristics of Electroabsorption Modulated Lasers’. Unfortunately, due to the commercial nature of my work, it was highly confidential and I couldn’t publish any papers based on my master’s research. This didn’t seem to really matter though as I looked into applying for PhD programs. Despite struggling with exams throughout my degree (which I now realise is because I always got a sensory overload in large, noisy exam halls) and thanks to my strong dissertation and coursework grades, I ended up graduating as a Master in Physics with First Class Honours!
I had applied for several quantum computing PhD programs and was offered several places but in the end, I settled on the project offered by my now supervisor at Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute. The main reason for this was that I had a lot of flexibility over the project and it focused on semiconductors for quantum computing applications. I suppose that the initial decision I made to go to Surrey, based on the research the department, was a great choice. Especially seeing as I am now part of the photonics and quantum sciences group which I had read about back when I was applying for university. I had also built up a good relationship with the disability services at Surrey in the final year of my MPhys and knew they would provide me with enough support through my PhD.
Where I am now
So, here I am. 1 1/2 years into my PhD and I am absolutely loving it! I’ve presented my work at a national conference and I even have 3 papers in the works, ready to be submitted (and maybe even published) this year. I’m on track to complete within 3 1/2 years from registration. I get to research a topic I am incredibly passionate about every day. I work at a world-leading research institute with close research links to many international labs and facilities. At this point, I really do feel like an expert in my niche.
For those interested, my project is focused on electron spin control in InSb heterostructures using quantum point contacts with a view to spin injection into quantum technologies. I know that is literally just a huge sentence of jargon but I’m hoping to write lots more blog posts in the future breaking down some of the concepts and terms related to my work!
My route into quantum technology research has been a very ‘traditional’ one. Although it hasn’t been the smoothest of journeys, I haven’t strayed far from the conventional path. I just want to highlight that you don’t have to do it this way. There are plenty of mature students doing masters and PhDs later in life, some people go straight into industry research after their first degree, some people don’t do a degree at all and enter the field through apprenticeships like these ones that the National Physical Laboratory offer.
Hopefully, this has given you some idea as to how I ended up where I am now and is useful to someone in some way!
If you want to get into quantum physics research, I have some tips for you in my FAQ.
If you like my work, I’d love your support!