Women Pushing the Limits of Quantum Frontiers: Yvonne Gao
When picturing a physicist, most of us automatically think of someone like Einstein. However, today’s physicists and scientists are a lot more diverse than the outdated images in our heads. If we challenge those stereotypes, we give young children of any gender, race, or socioeconomic status the power to imagine themselves working in a lab. Reaching out to younger students and showing them that truly anyone can become a scientist if they wish, is one of our next interviewee’s passions.
Introducing: Dr. Yvonne Gao, Assistant Professor at the University of Singapore and PI at the Centre for Quantum Technologies
Yvonne completed her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Oxford and then went on to earn her doctorate from Yale University. She worked in Robert J. Schoelkopf’s group and focused on developing multimode operations between multiphoton quantum states encoded in superconducting cavities. In 2019, Yvonne was chosen as one of the Innovators Under 35 (Asia Pacific) by MIT Tech Review for her work on developing crucial building blocks for quantum computers. In 2021, she won a Young Scientist Award in the physics, information, and engineering sciences category for her research on superconducting quantum computing, with the goal of constructing modular hardware building blocks that are robust and scalable.
What attracted you to physics and brought you to choose it as a career path?
When it comes to physics in general, I think I was initially interested because I was a little bit lazy as a student. I really didn’t like memorizing things. And with physics, it was very logical and principle-based, so once I understood the first principles very well, I was able to deduce and analyze a lot of things based on that without having to remember all of the equations individually.
So I think that was quite appealing, in terms of saving a lot of effort. But I think once I had a better understanding of physics, then I really started to get excited about learning more, and getting to the bottom of these ideas. I think the key for me was that I discovered not just physics, but experimental physics. I saw that there is a part of this field where we can be hands-on, tinker with things, and build very peculiar new devices to test out the unique and fundamental theories we see in textbooks.
How were you initially exposed to physics?
I think I was very fortunate; as a high school student, I had a lot of opportunities to do internships at the local universities and attach myself to labs. So I got a taste of what an experimental physics lab was like when I was in high school. That really gave me a different perspective. The outside view of physics is it’s very old school, everything is pen and paper. But by interning in experimental labs, and actually building things to test out concepts, I got more insight into what physicists are doing now and that made me want to go further with it.
And I think now, myself and some of my colleagues who have gone through similar experiences, are in a position to offer these types of opportunities. That’s why we also make it accessible to the students who are interested in finding out more about what actually goes on in a lab.
Is there anything you wish you could have done differently when you were starting your path in physics?
Sure, it can be intimidating as a young person to approach someone to ask questions and get advice on school and career choices, or even just subject matter for a project. But I think it’s well worth the effort. Sometimes we just have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone a little bit to make that initial first step. And I think if there’s one thing that I wish I could have done more, it’s probably to have reached out more and to have been more active about this.
When you’re a younger student in the system, it’s very intimidating. And now being on the flip side, I know that as working adults most of us are actually very much open and willing to make that time to chat with students.
But they do have to make that first initial effort. And as long as they are willing, and are keen to make the effort, I would say most of us are more than happy to share our experiences with students.
Were there any role models in the physics world that impacted or influenced your lab?
Perhaps there wasn’t one particular person, but my advisor and my sort of co-advisor, the two main people on my Ph.D. thesis committee, Rob and Michelle. Professionally they really created a framework where I could see how large scientific teams can be managed in a way that both encourages individual freedom of exploration and curiosity, as well as a cohesive team effort. Having an efficient, action-driven way to achieve the target that we set collectively as a team while exploring our own individual interests is a very hard balance to strike. And as a young graduate student, I think having that experience was very, very beneficial in itself, but it also helped me later on as I was navigating setting up my own lab. It helped me to not feel so intimidated by the thought of having to balance all of these different factors and requirements to have a team work together successfully. That was definitely inspiring and helpful for my own career development. Because you can be very focused and very goal-driven and achieve targets but sometimes that comes at the sacrifice of forgoing the chance of taking small intellectual detours or a little bit more risk.
If I were to focus on one particular goal and then forget all the other related things, that’s also not great for scientific developments. But at the same time if we’re all only satisfying our own curiosity, how will we achieve anything as a team? So seeing that balance being achieved, and knowing that it’s possible was very useful.
Can you share what your current research focus is and what a typical workday looks like for you?
Currently, we have a new team here; we started our lab around a year and a half ago and our focus is on building quantum hardware using superconducting circuits. This is the same technology that’s been developed by various other academic centers in the world, and now we’re bringing that technology back to Singapore to build our own capabilities here. Day to day, as a new group, we have very unique challenges but also a lot of fun.
We are setting up the experimental infrastructure from scratch. So this goes all the way from fixing plumbing issues in our new laboratory space to assembling new equipment and testing it out, to developing new theoretical frameworks for our original research experiments that will start once the initial commissioning of the equipment is done. So it’s quite a wide range of things, which keeps the job exciting.
Another big part of my day is interacting, mentoring, and training my team members. Many of them are very new to the field, and new to Singapore as well. We spend a lot of time together to first get them up to speed so that once they understand the basics, they can bring their own flavor and their own ideas to the team and contribute to the experiment. Diversity was a very important factor for me when I was building a team. And our goal is to be diverse, not just in gender, but also in backgrounds, personal experiences, in all sorts of possible ways. So we have lots of unique individuals from all over the world, and it’s a lot of fun working together. I think that’s what keeps us coming back to the lab every day.
What are your favorite aspects about your work?
My favorite part of this line of work is I feel like I’m constantly being surprised by new things. I’ve never reached a stage where I felt like I’ve known everything about what I’m working on.
And I’m constantly challenging myself to think differently about the same idea or learn about a new idea that just came out from the literature, or look into different ideas that were brought up by my students. The fact that there’s always something new to learn is very unique to research and that’s an aspect I very much enjoy.
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 a student feeling this way?
We’ve probably all had a moment where we’ve experienced it. But I think I didn’t know the phrase to use to describe that feeling when I was a young Ph.D. student. I remember being so blown away by the discussions people were having in front of me and how much I didn’t understand. There are definitely moments like this in your career, but with time and with being brave enough to keep asking questions, those moments gradually go away.
My advice for students who might be feeling a similar way is to remember that in our field, nobody knows absolutely everything. We’re all learning. So there is no harm in asking questions; it really just shows that you are trying to learn. And for me, once I got more comfortable, I started to see that opening up and telling people ‘I don’t know this, can you tell me more about it?’ actually shows a lot more strength than pretending to know something or shying away from a discussion.
So my advice is, don’t be afraid to show that side; no one is ever really judging you for asking questions. Those who can do that at a young age actually stand out; it really shows maturity and strength. And at the same time, you’re helping the people you’re asking as well because I often find that when I explain something the third time or the 15th time, my understanding is so much better than the first time I had to explain.
Can you share your thoughts on some of the challenges faced by women working in quantum computing and physics today and any challenges you’ve experienced yourself?
I will say there are two sides to the story. Personally, I have been very fortunate in that I haven’t had any major challenges in this regard. But I do have one sort of relatively funny example of how stereotypes can seep in, and perhaps make people quite uncomfortable.
One time, back in my Ph.D., we were having a discussion with our advisor. When I walked into the meeting with my notepad, there were three other people waiting there. One of them cracked a joke and said ‘so are you the secretary we’re meeting today?’ And I don’t think he said it with any malice or meant it to be degrading, but perhaps he wouldn’t have said the same thing to another man that walked in.
So I think there are stereotypes that seep through our judgments and enter the workplace that could make people not just uncomfortable, but also could create an unfriendly environment for women or minorities, or someone coming from a different socioeconomic background.
We need to be more conscious about these things because sometimes it’s not an intentional mistake, but it could cause irreversible damage to the atmosphere at work. Being more aware and conscious of these microaggressions and having open conversations about them is a very good start. And in this particular case, I actually responded and asked if he would have made the same joke if a man walked in. So from our side, making an effort to correct them, even though it’s very uncomfortable, is important.
If things had gone uncorrected, perhaps that might have left an impression that we’re okay with that kind of joke, that it’s not problematic at all. So sometimes we have to be ready to take action and say something, even if it is slightly uncomfortable.
On the other hand, I think there’s also a problem of not having enough role models and a lack of awareness of what it’s actually like to be a scientist in this field or a scientist in any of the newer research fields. In some of the activities I’ve done with high school students or even younger, very often they have outdated images of what scientists might look like, or what their day might be like. Another way to negate these stereotypes is to have more visibility into what we do and offer more opportunities for young people to get a sense of what a scientist actually does, in order to update the impression of the field and of the people involved in it.
In terms of encouraging the next generation of women in science and engineering, you touched on meeting younger students and improving their outdated impressions of what it means to be a scientist. Can you elaborate more on that?
These days, when I visit a school, I share what a normal workday looks like for me and highlight the fun parts of my day, including mentioning the people I work with. One thing I try to show is that it’s not a weird or rare thing anymore for women or any minority group to work in a field that’s stereotypically perceived as having only a certain type of person working in it. Things are different now. And I’m having fun and I want to show that having a diverse team is perfectly possible and normal.
In some sense, we’re trying to make it the norm of the field, so that others don’t think, ‘Oh, I have to be this trailblazer to go in and change everything in order to be happy in this particular career choice.’ But rather, this is a perfectly legitimate and normal option for anyone, and I should only choose it because I’m interested. Or I only should turn away from it, because I didn’t find it very interesting; there shouldn’t be any other reason that deters people from entering this field. So with these younger students, we try to give as much information about our day-to-day to bring normalcy and show regular, happy people pursuing what they’re interested in.
I think, for me, the goal is not to have equal numbers of this and that. It’s not really a matter of numbers; it’s more about allowing people to make informed choices and feel empowered in those decisions. So if they’re interested, by all means, they shouldn’t feel intimidated or left out because of their background or their gender.
And you mentioned earlier how in your own lab you try to create an open and positive atmosphere. Can you expand on how you go about creating that environment?
One key thing I always emphasize is that having open communication is the most important. It’s all about setting goals collectively, setting expectations of the pace at which we’re going collectively. So students feel that they have ownership over the goals they’ve set for themselves and the ways to achieve them. Giving them that ownership and autonomy is crucial.
Another thing I’m consciously trying to establish in my lab is that trying something and having it not work out isn’t a bad thing. So that students feel empowered to just try things. And if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just learn why it didn’t, and build upon that, rather than feeling like they’ll be penalized for failing or that they wasted their effort on it. Cultivating that spirit of saying it’s okay to have attempts that don’t work out as long as we learn something out of it. In research, it’s important to be brave and bold and keep trying, even though many of your attempts might end up leading nowhere. So I want to ensure that they don’t get stuck lingering on a failed attempt by having a safe space to accept the failure and move on.
If you could send a message to your younger self, just starting out on this path, what kind of advice would you give her?
I would say experiment more, try more things. Try everything. Try everything at once. If we’re looking back at my teenage years, I was fortunate enough to have all these opportunities created in a structured way so that I could apply for internships in science. But if I had been less fortunate and in a less structured environment, I think the most important advice I could give my younger self would be to be brave and just approach people. Create opportunities for yourself to explore different things and try everything that interests you. That’s the best way to find what you like or dislike, what you’re passionate about, and there is really no shortcut for that.
Do you have any tips for women who are thinking about a career in physics/STEM? Or any skills that would help them on that path?
It’s the same sort of skills as used for solving any problem, just the tools are slightly different. These tools are concrete and it’s up to us to learn them and then use them in creative ways to solve new problems. And professionally if anyone wants to get into STEM, I think this is a general thing that applies across these fields.
Be creative in solving problems and treat each of them as a little puzzle or a challenge. Use all the tools you’ve learned in the past few years. You have tools in your bag to solve any problem, and together we can always find a solution.
Specifically, for women studying in this field, I would say to find good mentors who can offer a different perspective on the challenges or choices that you might face on this path. And to hear someone’s perspective that has a different angle or vantage point to look at these things is extremely helpful.