Women Pushing the Limits of Quantum Computing: Anasua Chatterjee
This is the latest addition to our Women in quantum computing series, where we explore how women are breaking new ground in quantum computing and beyond. This time we caught up with Anasua Chatterjee, an Assistant Professor & researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen. We discussed a wide range of topics, including how she got started in quantum computing, challenges she encountered along the way, encouraging more female participation in STEM, and much more!
What attracted you to physics and brought you to choose it as a career path?
In high school, I generally excelled in math and science as I was good at grasping the key concepts and solving problems. But I was also interested in the arts. At one point, I wanted nothing more than to become an author (deep down I probably still have that ambition somewhere!). In school, I would sometimes read 5 or 6 books per day from any genre I could get my hands on.
Then, in high school, my father gifted me the Feynman Lectures in Physics. I was captivated by them, and from that moment on, I never considered pursuing any other path. It’s remarkable how seemingly insignificant things can shape the trajectory of our lives. In fact, the Feynman Lectures still occupy a prominent place on my work shelf. While I can’t claim they are the ultimate resource for learning physics, they undeniably ignited an enduring fascination with the subject.
How were you initially exposed to the field?
You know, sometimes I wonder if I actually chose my path or if it chose me! It’s funny how our experiences during our student years can have such a profound impact on our lives. For example, during my time at Princeton, I had the incredible opportunity to work on a project with Prof. Igor Klebanov, string theorist renowned for his work on the AdS/CFT correspondence. He was not only brilliant but also incredibly humble and patient as a mentor. At that point, I was torn between pursuing theory or experiment. It was a real dilemma for me.
But then, by pure chance, I stumbled upon an experimental research project in the quantum physics group led by Prof. Jason Petta. I ended up spending three years there, almost as long as a typical EU-length Ph.D.! What really drew me into experimental work was the hands-on aspect of it. I loved being in the lab, getting my hands dirty, and actually conducting experiments. Jason took a risk on me and gave me the freedom and encouragement to dive deep into the physics, just like the Ph.D. students. That level of exposure and immersion in the field was simply irresistible. And now, I honestly can’t imagine myself doing anything else. It’s funny how the right combination of opportunities and experiences can shape our passions and steer our lives in unexpected directions.
Is there anything you wish you could have done differently when you were starting your path?
I thought finishing my four-year undergraduate degree in the US and then coming to the UK to directly pursue a Ph.D. without doing a master’s degree was a great idea at the time. However, looking back, I realize that having a master’s degree or a longer Ph.D. program might have given me more breathing room. There were certain areas, like quantum field theory, that I always wanted to explore, but I never had the chance to take a dedicated course on it. In a way, going through a master’s program followed by a Ph.D. or a longer Ph.D. in the US might have provided me with that opportunity. Sometimes, taking a step back and allowing yourself to take things at a more leisurely pace can be beneficial in the long run.
Who were the role models and mentors that inspired you, helped you grow, or guided you to get to where you are?
To be honest, as a woman and a minority in the field of physics, I owe a great deal to the vocal mentors I had early in my career. If you’re under-represented in physics, which is a field heavily reliant on reputation, having someone in your corner becomes absolutely essential. Fortunately, all of my advisors have been incredibly supportive. Their belief in me went a long way towards making me realize that maybe I wasn’t an imposter after all.
When it comes to role models, there are many women physicists I greatly admire, for their brilliance but also their tenacity. One example is Chien-Shiung Wu, an extraordinary experimentalist who demonstrated the violation of parity; but she never got the Nobel Prize, of course.
What is your current role & research focus?
I’m now an assistant professor, and for several years, my focus has been on building and operating quantum hardware. Specifically, I work with a peculiar property of electrons called spin. By aligning or anti-aligning the electron’s spin with a magnetic field, we can encode information as zeros and ones and perform computations using different combinations of these values.
Currently, my research also involves feedback and control of delicate quantum systems, as well as engineering more complex devices and interactions. It’s a bit like working with Lego, where I try to piece together different components and materials to create hybrid devices. It’s a fascinating and creative process.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
As I’m primarily now an assistant professor, there’s been a shift towards grants, meetings, teaching, project planning, and management. Hands-on research becomes less frequent. However, I make it a point to dedicate at least one day a week to being in the lab, to stay updated on the details of ongoing experiments, and to have interactions with students and their research. This helps me keep the ideas fresh and maintain a current understanding of the work.
What do you like most about your work?
The thrill of conceiving new experiments, witnessing novel phenomena, and testing intriguing hypotheses is what truly excites me. The quantum world never ceases to captivate my interest, and it still amazes me that I have the privilege of exploring it as part of my profession. There’s something magical about observing a design or idea come to life in a scan or measurement.
These days, my excitement takes the form of a sudden surge when a student walks in to share the news that something worked exactly as we had planned. It’s a rewarding moment that reminds me why I’m passionate about this field and why I continue to find it endlessly fascinating.
What are your thoughts on ‘imposter syndrome’? Have you experienced it and if so, what advice would you give to someone feeling this way?
I think everyone has experienced it at some point. For me, during my time at Princeton, I had a strong desire to study physics. However, upon arriving, I encountered a whole new level of scholarship and competition. There were fellow students who had achieved great success in the International Physics Olympiad, and I felt somewhat intimidated coming from a different academic background in my home country. While my previous physics classes had been very rigorous in a way that emphasized knowing concepts and the textbook, they hadn’t prepared me for problem-solving at the intense level that Princeton demanded.
The first midterm I took at Princeton turned out to be a disaster. It hit me hard because I (and probably many other high-school overachievers) had never really experienced failure before. For a small moment I definitely considered giving up, but I realized that my passion for physics was still there and I was determined to keep going. I made a conscious effort to retrain my way of thinking, focusing on developing problem-solving skills and deepening my understanding of the subject. It wasn’t an easy process, but gradually things started to improve and I gained more confidence in my abilities. I even think I’m a better learner now because of this experience, and I got very good at teaching myself when I find gaps in my understanding.
Although imposter syndrome still lingers at times, recently a tweet I read describes well what I am trying to tell myself: embrace imposter syndrome, and that you have successfully fooled everyone!
What are your thoughts on the challenges (if any in particular) faced by women in physics today?
I believe that current initiatives aimed at addressing historic biases in physics departments, such as reviewing funding and hiring policies, are a positive step forward. However, I also recognize that much of the attrition occurs at earlier stages and in more subtle ways. To departmental committees, I would emphasize the importance of truly listening to women within their departments. This may seem obvious, but it can be more challenging than it appears.
For working academics and physicists, who hold significant power to effect change, I urge them to actively examine their own research labs for any presence of injustice and implicit bias. Taking proactive steps is crucial. For instance, consciously collaborating and co-authoring with women colleagues can make a significant difference. It is essential to ensure that women are nominated for committees, speaking opportunities, positions, and prizes, providing them with equal opportunities for visibility and recognition.
Do you have any tips for women who are thinking about a career in quantum computing or physics?
To those facing doubts and challenges in their academic pursuits, especially women in male-dominated fields like physics, let me be unequivocal: Genius knows no gender boundaries. So, repeat this mantra until it resonates within you: You belong in the field, you belong in the lab, and you have every right to be as driven and self-centered in pursuing your academic interests and career as anyone else.
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?
I would advise my younger self to trust in my abilities and resist the grip of imposter syndrome. Looking back, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern where initial self-doubt gives way to success and recognition over time. If I could show my college self this trend, I would assure them that they will likely be fine. Trusting in oneself and embracing confidence would have alleviated unnecessary stress and allowed me to fully embrace the journey ahead.
And lastly, when not in the lab, what do you like to do?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always had a deep passion for reading and writing; I think of it as a creative outlet that complements the scientific part of my brain. Recently, I also discovered a love for working with my hands and engaging in creative projects that also demand a bit of engineering. Pottery has become an interest, combining artistry and technical skill, as well as sewing and pattern drafting, which combines creativity with the meticulousness of measurements and design. I’m probably drawn to things like this because they draw parallels to the process of designing and conducting experiments and finding satisfaction in a job well done. When I lived in London, I also found learning horseriding at a local city farm a lot of fun. I admit I had thought it would be the horse doing most of the work. I later found out that it actually requires a lot of athleticism; but by that time I was hooked.
We hope you enjoyed this interview & special thanks to Anasua for participating.