It is no secret that there is an implicit bias against women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and in recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on recruiting women into such fields. However, many who have left careers in STEM believe that there are also issues within these industries and fields themselves that need to be addressed in order to retain women. So what is it really like for young Australian women scientists? In this interview series, we find out.
I talk to several young women from different fields of science about their work, as well as any instances of discrimination they may have experienced or witnessed, and their hopes for the future.
The first interview is with Josephine Dias, who started her PhD at the University of Queensland with Professor Timothy Ralph, of the Quantum Optics Quantum Information Theory Group, in 2015. Since then, she has been the co-author of two research articles, while working on quantum repeaters.
YEN-RONG: What have you done in the past, and what research are you doing now?
JOSEPHINE: The field I’m working in now is theoretical quantum communication. In the past, I’ve done several projects on amplification protocols and error correction for quantum communication. Now, I am working on a quantum repeater – a device used to extend the distance of quantum communication.
YEN-RONG: What made you interested in physics to begin with?
JOSEPHINE: I have always been interested in physics, and after high school I just wanted to study it as much as I could.
YEN-RONG: What are three things about your field of research that people would not otherwise know about?
JOSEPHINE: The first thing that people may not know is that one of the main applications of quantum communication is the ability to transmit information securely. Using quantum entanglement, you can generate a key for cryptography where security is guaranteed by the laws of physics.
The second thing is that quantum communication is very hard to achieve over long distances. This is because quantum states are fragile and when sent over long distances this fragility causes them to be destroyed. There is a huge worldwide effort currently ongoing to extend the distance that quantum communication can be used over and I am happy to say I am a part of that effort.
Lastly, people may not know what a quantum repeater is. A quantum repeater is a device that divides up the channel between the sender and receiver and performs specific operations to protect the fragile quantum states, thereby extending the distance over which quantum communication can be performed. My PhD involves theoretical work to investigate and model ways to implement a quantum repeater.
YEN-RONG: Are there any misconceptions about your field that you really want to combat? If so, which ones?
JOSEPHINE: Yes, the one major misconception I see is that quantum communication allows faster than light communication. This is of course not true.
YEN-RONG: What did you wish you knew about physics before you dived into it?
JOSEPHINE: I wish I knew how important coding was! In physics, many of the problems that researchers work on now require powerful computational tools to solve. I think coding is an incredibly important skill (not just in physics) and one that I wish I had before studying physics.
YEN-RONG: Have you personally experienced any kind of discrimination in the lab or at conferences that you’ve been to? If so, please elaborate. If not, do you have any colleagues that have experienced this?
JOSEPHINE: No, I have not personally experienced any discrimination and I am not aware of any discrimination my colleagues have faced.
YEN-RONG What kind of strategies would you like to see implemented in science oriented workplaces to combat gender discrimination?
JOSEPHINE: In science, I would like to see more equal gender representation in higher levels of academia. We know that while gender representation is approximately equal at the bachelor degree level in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine), approximately only 20% of professors in STEMM in Australia are women. To combat this problem, UQ is part of the SAGE Pilot of the Athena SWAN program, an accreditation program where awards are given to reflect an institution’s effort to address gender equity. The Athena Swan program has been running in the UK since 2005 with success and I think seeing it in Australia is a good sign that the higher education sector in Australia is actively trying to achieve gender equity.
YEN-RONG: What is a recent scientific discovery or advancement that you’re most excited about?
JOSEPHINE: There are several international projects currently underway aiming to perform Earth-to-satellite quantum experiments. If these are successful, it could mean a promising future in quantum communication by using satellite links which I think is very exciting.
YEN-RONG: What do you think you’d like to do after you finish your PhD? What would be your dream job?
JOSEPHINE: I think one of the best things about doing my PhD in physics is being constantly challenged to solve problems. I’d be happy to work in any job where those skills are utilised.
Yen-Rong is a Brisbane based writer. She is the founder and editor in chief of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of young Asian Australian Artists. When she is not writing, you might find her on Twitter, drinking tea, or chasing after her cat, Autumn. You can read more of her work here.