This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists who participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).
Janet Zhong from Australia is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. Her honours thesis is on quantum/ nonlinear topological photonics. She will be studying two-photon edge states in a qubit array. The overarching goal of this field is the creation of topological quantum qubits. Janet discussed the importance of science communication with Nobel Laureate William D. Phillips, you can find the video on Youtube.
Enjoy the interview with Janet and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I didn’t decide to do physics in university until the last year of high school – I actually wanted to be an architect. My high school teacher jokingly threatened to withhold my test scores if I didn’t sign up for the Australian Physics Olympiads exam. I ended up going to the summer camp and eventually represented Australia in the International Physics Olympiads. The friends I met there had so much fun doing physics. I never knew physics could be an imaginative endeavour, so this experience definitely inspired me to go down this path.
I don’t have any singular role models (we’re all flawed!) but I admire many aspects of lots of people. My supervisor Alexander Poddubny has a very deep love of physics, so it is hard for that not to be contagious. A mentor of mine, Rose Ahlefeldt has supported me a lot throughout the years and was one of the first physicists I felt I actually related to. I’ve been very lucky and have had awesome classmates and tutors over the years. ANU has some great physicists and educators like Jodie Bradby and Joe Hope. I look up to people who are happy and people who speak out for those quieter than them.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
My parents are first generation immigrants to Australia. They sacrifice a lot and work every day in their small business so that my brother and I have opportunities that they never had. They never put a lot of pressure on me which meant that I felt like I could pursue anything. Going to Olympiads was the kick-starter to my physics journey but attending the Australian National University for my undergraduate is what allowed my physics to flourish. At ANU, there is a lot of flexibility in course choices and the chance to do independent research early on which I really enjoy. I also bulk apply for random things (and get rejected often too!) I was inspired to pursue topological photonics partly from a project at ANU and also because of an internship I did at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
I am not a perfect student. I can sometimes be a bit hit and miss but I when I am interested in something, I can get very deep into it. I have been motivated by various things over the years. I was once motivated by a fear of failure after not doing well one semester. I found that I have a strong drive I can tap into when I need it, but it wasn’t a very fun way to do physics. I’ve been a lot more conscious about being motivated by fun and I’m actually doing better and am happier with this approach. My current research topic is very new and novel so it is hard not to be swept away by it. The physics feels bigger than me (in a good way) and I’m happily running just trying to catch and understand it. I think I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked very hard but I have also lived a privileged life.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I think I am just beginning to step into the world of research (I am still an undergraduate) but all the projects I have been able to work on so far have been cool to me. The one where I felt most excited was a topological photonic zigzag chain that I worked on last year. It was the first time I felt I was doing original work so it gave me a taste of what research would be like. I was very happy when I got to work on the project – it had some unexpected behaviour so it always felt novel. I liked having something to churn away at and it was a neat problem to study.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
In a maths reading course, I decided I wanted to plot a famous diagram called the Hofstadter butterfly. This plot describes the behaviour of electrons in a crystal subjected to a magnetic field. This physical scenario is the setup of the ‘Quantum Hall Effect,’ the discovery of which led to the 1985 Nobel Prize. The Hofstadter butterfly is also a fractal – which means that it has a pattern that repeats itself on smaller scales. Fractals are a big area in maths (but more importantly they look really cool.) There is also a coloured version of the Hofstadter butterfly where the colours represent different topological phases of matter. Discoveries on topological phases of matter led to the 2016 Nobel Prize. So this one plot contains an incredibly deep amount of physics. In order to plot this diagram, I had to write code to solve for the energy in the system at a range of magnetic fields. It took me four weeks to plot the regular Hofstadter butterfly and then another two weeks to plot the coloured Hofstadter butterfly because I was self-teaching myself Python at the time. When my code worked and I could see this rainbow butterfly plot emerging, I was pretty shocked because I didn’t actually think it was actually going to work. I was super happy! It looked like this:
What is a “day in the life” of Janet like?
Right now, I am doing physics honours which is the last year of my undergraduate degree in Australia. It is sort of like a mini masters program. We are just finishing coursework at the moment so I am currently preparing for exams. I recently started Ultimate Frisbee (which is really big here in Canberra) so I go to training once in a while. Otherwise I am pretty mellow, I enjoy getting coffee with friends and a nice book.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
This is hard for me to answer because I think my life will be somewhat unpredictable. I dream big but I also like to keep my ambitions as a feeling of what I want to do rather than a detailed plan. This is because life changes very quickly and will almost certainly depend on things I experience each step of the way. I have always wanted to invent things and the idea of discovering something in research no matter how big or small is quite motivating for me. I would love to see my work permeate into the lives of others but whether this is through physics or other means I do not know. I also know that I care about people a lot. I have learnt through volunteering at camps and being involved in university that being able to give opportunities to other people makes me very happy, so I hope to be able to do things like this in my career. No matter what I do or do not accomplish, so long as I have good people around me and I work on morally good things, I consider life a success.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I have a rotating round of intense hobbies. When I was little, I was obsessed with drawing and painting. Then it was the ukulele. At one point I took apart foam Nerf guns and made modifications to make them shoot further. I also skateboarded a lot for a few years and have an unexpectedly large repertoire of knowledge of the skateboarding world. I do a bit of event photography in my spare time but I love nature photography and sunsets. I’ve recently picked up reading again for the first time in years and I’ve been really into biographies. I hope to go solo travelling once I’ve saved up some money – I met these solo backpackers in Singapore and they knew so much about life, humans and other cultures. I love learning about people and I feel I am naive about the world.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
One of the biggest determinants of success is actually how much you believe you deserve success in the first place. I sometimes struggle with this too. When I found out I got accepted to the Lindau Meeting, my first reaction was “but why didn’t my classmates get picked instead of me?” Women are more likely to undersell what they are capable of or convince themselves that they are not qualified, so consciously reminding yourself not to do this is a good thing. You are allowed to ask for opportunities, you are allowed to apply for things you feel unqualified for and you are allowed to celebrate your successes.
It’s also okay to be an outlier sometimes – it doesn’t mean you don’t belong. Some of my male friends have been the most supportive to me so there is no need to create an us vs them mentality. Even if you feel you might be out of place, you are connected by an even stronger bond which is a mutual interest in science so it really shouldn’t matter whether you are female, male or non-binary.
It is also important to learn what works for you. I sometimes like to be gender blind rather than hyper gender aware. When I am surrounded by too much rhetoric about how I am in a minority group or how I am less likely to succeed, it can sometimes make me feel worse. On the other hand, I really enjoy gatherings where people in minorities come together, such as women in science lunches, as it builds solidarity. I’m normally quite aware of my thought processes and actively pick the one that will be most healthy and happy for me. The same thing should go to you, you might not like my advice and that would be valid. The more you know how your own brain works, the better.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?
Maybe topological photonics! The 2016 Nobel Prize went to topological phases in condensed matter and this movement led to the development of a new field in photonics that was inspired by these discoveries. It’s so recent that changes occur rapidly. There are so many new and novel problems so it is an area of large potential. However, I am just an undergraduate who hasn’t been exposed to The Big World and I’m sure I am biased because it is also the topic I am studying now.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
For female physicists, an increased visibility in role models is very powerful. Physics, maths and computer science often struggle with female attrition from the beginning of university or earlier. The atmosphere can at times be fairly male-centric and I’ve heard far too many stories of smart women who stopped doing physics because they didn’t feel comfortable in the environment or because they doubted themselves. Having an inspiring female lecturer or teacher can be very powerful, especially if young girls can see themselves in her shoes. Having more well-known female physicists in the news or in pop culture can also shift what people consider the norm.
For female scientists and professors in general, it is more of a pipeline issue. Other science disciplines actually have a good gender ratio here in Australia. Biology and psychology in Australia can sometimes have more women than men at the undergraduate level. However, that doesn’t change the fact that women are still largely underrepresented in higher academic positions in these disciplines. Having a family tends to impact a woman’s career more significantly than a man’s career so having an inclusive environment where there are flexible policies regarding parental leave and part time work can help a lot. A career in academia can also be pretty brutal – with each step there are fewer and fewer positions. Women can sometimes undersell themselves and may tap out earlier. Creating structural change through hiring practices or a shift in workplace culture so that women feel like they belong in these higher academic positions can help stem this leaky pipeline.