Women Pushing the Limits of Quantum Frontiers: Inbar Zohar
Today, women make up only 27% of the STEM field. While it’s more than three times as many as in the 1970s, we still have a long way to go. To continue making progress in growing women’s representation in this field, we, as a community, need to show more examples of women succeeding in STEM. Our next featured profile emphasized this point and highlighted the importance of making women in labs the norm.
Introducing: Inbar Zohar, a Ph.D. student at the Weizmann Institute of Science at the Quantum-Enhanced Sensing Techniques Group.
Inbar completed her Bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Then, she moved to the Weizmann Institute of Science and shifted to studying neuroscience and physical chemistry at the magnetic resonance spectroscopy lab for her Master’s. Here, her thesis was on changes in brain metabolites in genetically engineered mice under neuron activation and rest. Continuing her studies at Weizmann, Inbar is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Dr. Amit Finkler’s group.
Initially, what inspired you to study physics?
I actually started my undergrad without any knowledge of physics. I initially wanted to have a career in neuroscience and before starting my Bachelor’s, I wanted to pick a major that would provide good background for pursuing neuroscience later. There are quite a few physicists in my family, both men, and women. So, naturally, I had a lot of encouragement to go into physics because it gives you a good background in sciences and offers a wide variety of knowledge and skills. After starting my undergrad in physics and chemistry, I fell in love with the physics part.
Not having any high school experience in physics made it overwhelming at the beginning. There were even a few times I considered dropping out. But once you go over that hump and you begin to understand what people are talking about, physics becomes a very interesting subject. It’s a fun way to understand the world and make sense of it. And having friends and family to help me through the dark patches was a big help.
You mentioned your family was a big part of your decision to study physics. Were there other role models or mentors that helped you along the way?
For sure. My current PIs as well as the ones during my undergrad studies. There were also other researchers in the lab that mentored me and helped me find my path. I don’t have a specific person in mind, but the spirit and the environment that I grew up and currently work in really give me the sense that anything is possible. Whether you’re a woman or a man, it doesn’t really matter.
I don’t feel like studying physics as a woman is a kind of a breakthrough. The women that I admire already did that job of breaking the glass ceiling before me.
What does a typical workday look like for you, and what is your current research focus?
As a Ph.D. student, I’m basically working in the lab all day. Sometimes it’s experimental, like optics, and sometimes even chemistry. Other days, there’s coding work to do. And I also enjoy helping the younger students in our lab.
We have a few projects we’re currently working on. One project is about improving the sensitivity of magnetic sensors using the OPX with an algorithm that we have. Another project I’m working on belongs more to the quantum information realm. We’re trying to create some kind of communication between two qubits, one from the chemical world and one from the physics world. So we’re trying to create this type of quantum system that can process quantum information with these two elements.
What are some of your favorite aspects about working in a lab and being a Ph.D. student?
First, it is the freedom to do almost whatever I want, whenever I want. Not just in terms of managing my time, but also in choosing the next steps in my research. I have an advisor to guide me, but the final decision is mine. Another aspect I like is the opportunity to collaborate with people here in Weizmann as well as researchers around the world.
What are your thoughts on the challenges faced by women in quantum computing or physics today?
I feel like there are challenges for everyone studying physics because it’s not a simple topic. Occasionally, there were situations where I experienced bias because of being a woman. However, I never felt that being a woman was a problem in pursuing physics. Most people in this field are very open and modern.
I never felt like my gender is something that could stop me.
There was one instance a few months ago when I was at a conference. I was with a friend, a Ph.D. student who’s a man, and we were having a conversation with another researcher, also a man. And I felt like the researcher was ignoring me completely. At first, I didn’t know if he had something against me specifically or women in general. Either way, I decided this is not the person to talk to. His research was interesting to me, but there are other people doing things related or similar.
The perspective I always try to take is that you don’t need to force a relationship with someone who doesn’t see that the world has changed and that being a woman doing research is normal. There are so many other people and so many other paths. You just need to find the right one for you. Even if that scientist would have been the top physicist in the world, it’s just not a good atmosphere to be in. There are so many other opportunities; you can always find a place where you can do interesting research with good people.
You mentioned that you’re a mother. How has motherhood affected your career?
Personally, motherhood affects my life positively and gives me many unique perspectives that others may not have. In my career, I have experienced some drawbacks because of it. However, I’ve been able to work hard and overcome any obstacles in my path. And of course, being a parent as a woman is a different experience than it is for a man. When I got pregnant, my husband didn’t have to tell anyone right away, but I had a time limit to let my PI know before I started showing. Nowadays the responsibilities are split more equally between parents, yet they’re never fully equal. It depends on the career stage of each parent.
In the end, I’m a mother, my husband is a father, and both of us are putting in the same amount of effort at home as well as at work. So being a mother isn’t an issue that affects my work. I think it makes me work even harder.
These days ‘imposter syndrome’ is a popular theme. Have you had experiences with it at any point in your career? What advice would you give to someone feeling this way?
Yes, I’ve experienced it a few times. It always helps having a very good support system around me. For me it’s my husband, my friends, sometimes even my PI. I’ve never directly told my PI that I felt like an imposter, but a good word from him or a check on the status of my research helps me understand that I’m on the right track. What my husband always tells me is, it doesn’t matter why or how you got there. You got there, and you’re there now, take advantage of it, and ignore everything else. Put any doubts aside and use what you have now.
And sometimes, when I’m in need of reassurance, I ask my PI for direction. It’s not always easy, but I get a lot of encouragement from my family to do that whenever I feel like I’m not good enough. It’s definitely not easy to go and knock on their door and ask for feedback, but in the end, it always helps. And what I’ll do is go to their office and let them know I need to do a check-in with them. That I’d like to sit together and think of what I’ve done so far, and receive some advice on how to do it better for next time. So it always includes constructive criticism for how I can improve as well as positive feedback. I’ve found that my PIs are always open to doing this. They just may not come to me first because they’re so busy. But once you ask, they always find the time to sit down and check-in with you.
Unfortunately, another variant of COVID-19 is in the news again. How did COVID impact your work or your schedule as a student?
It had a major impact on my life, especially as a mother. In Israel, for the first year, we were in lockdown in our house for probably 75% of the year. And with the kids, I couldn’t find almost any time to work, except for midnight. Towards the end of the first year of COVID, my husband and I started splitting our time with the kids, and I was able to go back into the lab. We prioritized getting back to work not just for the money, but also for our own sanity. Both my husband and I enjoy our work so we really pushed each other to focus on it. This meant that sometimes I would need to come into the lab at 8 pm and on other days at 5 am, just to fit in all of my work.
And I’m not the only burnt-out parent. Like me, many other people experienced setbacks because of not having as much time to work. Also, the lack of conferences was a setback. If you want to create connections and learn about different paths for your research, it’s hard to do so when you can’t talk to anyone except on Zoom.
As members of the quantum computing ecosystem, what can we do to inspire and encourage the next generation of women looking to go into science and engineering?
I think the trivial answer is education, for sure. Exposing students to physics and engineering in high school allows them to see it as a career option. But also what helped me understand that anything is possible, specifically with sciences and engineering, is having good examples around me.
So I think it’s important to show kids in general that women are everywhere and can work anywhere. And to show that this isn’t a question, it’s a fact.
Just like showing at home that it’s important to split the housework evenly between men and women, it’s important to have community role models showing children that both men and women can work in any job.
If you could send a message to your younger self, what kind of advice would you give her when she was just starting out on this path?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes we think it’s a weakness, but it’s not. I’m still afraid to do it sometimes. I think the real weakness is not asking for help. And also like I said before, if you want something, you will find a way to do it. If there are barriers, it may take longer but you will still find a way to do it. With the right support and the right people around you, you can do anything.
Are there any tips or skills you would recommend to women that are looking to do a career in physics or STEM in general?
You need to have passion. An analytical mindset also helps. But really, having skills before starting your degree is a benefit, and it’s not a must. You can always gather the skills you need along the way. As long as you have passion and courage, you’ll be able to do it.