Heriot-Watt research group advances gender diversity in STEM

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women in stem

A research group in the Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences at Heriot-Watt University has tasked itself with improving its recruitment practice to be more inclusive and recruit the best researchers.

The group, Beyond Binary Quantum Information Lab (BBQLab), established by Professor Mehul Malik three years ago, develops methods to delicately control the spatial and temporal structure of light in order to push the limits of quantum technologies for application in communication, computation, and imaging.

Newly established Principal Investigator, Professor Malik identified challenges recruiting to his group, particularly in recruiting women, and decided to take action by seeking guidance from within the quantum science community.

Through active involvement in Q-Turn, a European workshop series for quantum scientists with a core mission to foster an inclusive community, he was introduced to the work of Dr Sabine Wollmann.

When Dr Wollmann was awarded a prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship by the European Commission she chose to bring her fellowship to Heriot-Watt.  She subsequently introduced more women researchers to the team - two of whom were recruited. 

As they’ve built the team, creating a sense of welcome and belonging has been a critical part of the new approach. Potential new members are invited to meet the team which gives an opportunity to experience the inclusive and respectful culture, where team members are encouraged to enjoy their work.

Today Professor Malik's team of eight early career researchers is 50% female - up from 20% in 2020.

Speaking on Ada Lovelace Day 2021 - an international celebration of the achievements of women in STEM - Professor Malik said: “Throughout my career I crossed paths with brilliant female scientists from across the globe and couldn’t figure out why we weren’t seeing them in the recruitment pool.  I believe that a combination of networking in an inclusive way and presenting a welcoming and respectful culture has empowered us to make quantum and photonics more appealing.

The discipline is not an easy one for the lay person to get their heads around. Professor Malik explains: “One of our research areas of focus is photonic high-dimensional entanglement, where particles of light share strong quantum correlations, irrespective of how far apart they are. Besides telling us something profound about the nature of reality itself, entanglement forms the backbone of super-secure quantum encryption systems and ultra-fast quantum computers.”

Dr Sabine Wollmann, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, who uses photonic systems to discover more about quantum mechanics explains: “I am very passionate about being in the lab and using my creativity to overcome and solve problems. It was this puzzle solving and the use of my mind that really got me excited for science.

“I would recommend women to follow their passion and go into science. You might be quite surprised how diverse the graduate jobs can be. It is important to build your network early on and reach out to other women and men on different career levels.

“I ultimately decided to move to Heriot-Watt because of Mehul's reputation in the field. It was his other Postdocs that convinced me that he is very supportive of early career researchers and I would be able to strive in his group."

Sophie Engineer, PhD student in quantum thermodynamics and metrology, said: “I always loved problem solving and that led me to a degree in mathematics. Nowadays, I am motivated partly by the applications of quantum physics in technologies but also simply because the mathematics used in quantum physics is really elegant and I enjoy working with it!  

“Being surrounded by female role models in science is a great help and a form of inspiration.  There are many online events for women and non-binary people in science now which provides much needed support.”

Postgraduate Research Student Natalia Herrera Valencia said: “Since I was little, I found the idea of a laboratory fascinating, asking questions and doing experiments to discover new things. I was lucky to have people in my life that would motivate me to follow that path, advising me to study physics and showing me that it was something I would be capable of doing.  Currently, I'm doing my PhD, finding novel ways to characterise and manipulate complex quantum states of light.”

We celebrate Ada Lovelace Day as part of the University’s Athena Swan initiative. We hold an Athena Swan Institutional Bronze award and all three of our STEM schools hold a Departmental Athena Swan Bronze award. If you’d like to progress your STEM career at Heriot-Watt please see our job opportunities - we’d love to see you apply! Find out more about our outreach work with schools.

Profiles of women working in STEM at Heriot-Watt:

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Susan Kerr

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