Earlier this month, we talked about sharing knowledge through data-driven stories in our interview series. This time we ask, what’s it like to be working at the edge of the world’s knowledge? Meet Dr Yvonne Gao, a research scientist with A*STAR. She’s developing key building blocks for universal quantum computing, a hot topic where the experiments require temperatures colder than in outer space. We chat about following your curiosity into a career and setting yourself up for success when you’re a minority in the field.
Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be a research scientist in quantum computing at A*STAR?
It started when I was still in high school, and I just enjoyed studying physics. I had the chance to go to Oxford University, and there, I got to learn beyond the curriculum through my tutor who is a quantum physicist. It was fascinating. I got to know about how quantum physics was used for information processing and the experimental aspects of physics, which was very different from what I did in high school in lab courses.
Physics doesn’t require a lot of memory work. If you really understand the concepts, everything is logical. You can start deducing how things would behave and why, based on first principles. It’s about being creative with problem-solving where you look at a natural phenomenon, try to infer what mechanism led to that, and maybe come up with a hypothesis of how it works. You construct experiments to prove whether that’s false or true. You’re solving new problems that evolve and get more and more intricate. I think that’s the part that got me hooked and made it quite clear to me that I wanted to continue with the field.
My PhD was, in some sense, a honeymoon. It was six years of doing something really interesting and dynamic, where things change every day. I met really inspiring people along the way that pointed me in the right direction. The more I understood about the field, the more potential I saw in it. Towards the later stage, it became a more informed career choice to go into quantum computing. In my current job, I’m still primarily doing research. But compared to when I was a graduate student, I work a lot more independently in terms of coming up with the specific problems I want to solve.
What’s a work day like for you?
It varies day-to-day, depending on what stage our research is at. Towards the beginning, I’m charting out the necessary components or resources I need to complete a certain scope of study.
Our set-up includes superconductive quantum circuits, which are very similar to normal electrical circuits, except they exhibit quantum mechanical behavior. This requires a really low temperature so the circuits can conduct electricity without any resistance. We need to bring our equipment down from room temperature, which is roughly 300 Kelvin, to nearly 1/1000 Kelvin (-273.15 Celsius).
Once our system is up and running, it’s about designing the right experiments to probe the right effects. For example, we send in some microwave signals and compare them with the signals that we extract to find out what happened in our quantum system. There’s a lot of tracking and analyzing the data, and towards the end of the research stage, I try to make sense of the results and find the best way to present them to our peers in the community.
The end-goal is to make a universal quantum computer, basically a machine that can solve any problem by us programming it differently without changing the hardware, like our laptops these days. Another characteristic that we want to achieve is error resistance. We want to make sure that the system doesn’t fail too frequently such that we can no longer trust the outcome.
What’s the most challenging part of your work in quantum computing, and what’s your best hack for that?
A research project could be six months or three years. It is a lot less well-defined than an undergraduate course where you have a clear end, which makes the work both exciting and difficult. If there is not a clear, tangible goal, you can become really frustrated.
What I do is set myself very small, but clear goals along the way. Every day, sometimes even before I go to the lab, I envision what I will do that day or in the next few days. I may identify one specific problem to solve. I think that helped me a lot in just making sure that every day is kind of satisfying.
Another issue is to do with being a minority in a discipline that’s very male-dominated. It wasn’t too much of a challenge for me as I’ve always been quite opinionated and outspoken. But I definitely sense that sometimes I have to speak louder than I would otherwise.
The fine balance is to be assertive without sounding bossy, or to be confident and open-minded at the same time. I think it’s a bit of trial and error. It’s quite common for women in science, even for the more established ones in the community to come across as overconfident. Sometimes it’s like a defense mechanism, because if we’re not sure enough of our own ideas, then it seems we’re basically adopting what other people tell us to.
Regardless, it’s important to not be afraid to ask for help. I don’t think that’s a sign of weakness. I think you have to be very sure of yourself to be open and say, I’m really struggling here. It helps as well, to be able to show your vulnerability in a professional way.
How did you go about finding possible mentors?
If I’m at a conference or in a group setting, and I meet a person whose experience I admire or find beneficial to know more about, I don’t feel shy to reach out and say, do you want to stay in touch or can I follow up?
Actually, it’s really interesting. I sense, in America, people can get overly politically correct. Very often, I had to take the initiative to ask for the contact information if the other person is a man, as they don’t want to appear as if they are going after someone in a professional setting. We (as women) just have to take a bit more initiative.
What’s a common misconception about what it means to be a physicist that you would like to correct?
One is that we only want to talk about physics, like that’s the main defining feature of our lives. That’s really not true. Like any other profession, physics does shape the way we think a little bit, but we do love talking about everything else. Sometimes I actively tell my friends, okay, we’re going to switch up and talk about something else now.
There are times when I meet people, after they find out I study physics, they tend to intentionally switch the conversation to physics or something. Maybe they’re genuinely curious about my field, but sometimes they seem to think I would be uncomfortable about something that’s not in my domain of expertise. That was a bit shocking to me. Another thing I’ve been asked a lot is, are all your friends like the guys in the Big Bang Theory? No.
In Singapore, people will still find it surprising if you’re a woman who really wants to study physics. Generally, they have a certain image. They are thinking of the Big Bang Theory sitcom.
Most of the girls I know who did physics in the UK and the US are completely normal human beings. They are very bubbly and eloquent. Maybe we just need to have more exposure here. The ‘Women in Science’ initiatives in the UK and the US have been around a little bit longer. There’s been a bit more visibility. I think things may be slowly changing here.
What would you say are the most understated skill-sets?
I think it’s very important to be bold and creative. Sometimes not caring about what people think is crucial in some moments. It’s not good as a general rule of life, but in science, it’s good to be a little headstrong. You’re probing something that nobody knows about, especially when you’re at a higher level of research.
There are no easy answers anywhere. If you’re not comfortable making bold assertions or coming up with intelligent ways to back those up, then it’s difficult to push the boundaries.
What’s your favourite passion project?
One is science policy, and I started the Emerging Technologies Forum with other researchers. There are a lot of important questions to discuss. We need to create an environment where scientists can do their job more easily and get their results out to the community.
For example, we need to discuss how to integrate new aspects of science into the curriculum. When I was studying at the undergraduate level, my coursemates and I found that there was a gap between what we were studying from books published about six years ago and the current state of things, especially for fields that were not so mature yet, but were starting to be important. I think it’s a difficult question to think about, how do you find ways at the national level to make sure that there’s a good flow of information to students in terms of having a more flexible curriculum?
Another question is, how does geopolitics affect scientific research? Most of us just want to do good research and be open with our peers in the community. That can get hindered if the policy aspect is not handled well. With the forum, we’re trying to explore these questions to overcome barriers to the scientific process.
I’m also promoting girls in science, and I work with the Singapore Committee for UN Women to do school outreach and learning journeys. The latest one we did was for Methodist Girls School girls at Secondary Four level. We had a few scientists share their experience and we showed the girls around at A*STAR to give them a glimpse of what it’s like to pursue science as a career. We are also helping the Committee design a science camp curriculum for 10 to 14-year-olds. This is a new experience for me to design hands-on activities for this age group! It’s pretty interesting and hopefully, we will roll it out soon.