Having always loved physics, Dr Najwa Sidqi studied for an undergraduate degree in the subject, before undertaking a Masters in material science and nanotechnology. Following this, Najwa began a career in the semiconductor industry, holding positions as an engineer at several different companies, before returning to study for a PhD. Najwa’s background in nanotechnology and optical coatings ultimately led her to pursue a career in quantum and she now works as Knowledge Transfer Manager for Quantum at Innovate UK KTN. We caught up with Najwa to find out more about her journey to working in quantum, her role and what aspects of quantum excite her the most.
You have a background in nanotechnology and materials science. Can you tell us a little more about your journey to working in quantum and what inspired you to move into this field?
I was always fascinated by physics as a discipline and appreciated the variety of subjects within it. I decided to study the subject at university and learned about almost every physics subject you could think of, and some chemistry too. After I graduated, I did a Masters degree which focused on materials science and nanotechnology, this also had quite a large physics component. Afterwards, I started working in the semiconductor industry in one of the big foundries in France, working on characterising and fabricating different semiconductor structures. My first job was as an expert engineer in electronic circuits characterisation. After working in industry for a few years, I chose to do a PhD in optical filters for microcavities and quantum applications. I guess all the nano-fabrication and nano-characterisation work I had done is what led me to quantum because nano-fabrication and nano-characterisation are so important for developing quantum hardware and are therefore important to quantum applications too.
Can you tell us a little more about KTN, what it does and what your role there involves? What’s an average day like for you?
Innovate UK KTN exists to connect people and support innovation in the UK and globally in order to achieve a positive economic, social and environmental impact. My role is mainly focused on knowledge transfer which includes stakeholder engagement, initiating collaborations, gathering knowledge and developing an understanding of the developments in quantum in the UK and globally, all with the aim of driving quantum forward.
My days involve lots of stakeholder engagement, meetings, and introductions. I try to connect specific people, essentially acting as a matchmaker! I also spend time researching developments in quantum technologies, keeping an eye on things and gathering knowledge and understanding. A big part of my work recently involved mapping the quantum landscape across the UK and Europe. This involved a lot of data collection and analysis. I also organise networking events and raise awareness about quantum and its diverse applications for the end user.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The people! Coming from a more technical and scientific background, I often had my head down, executing technical tasks and doing a lot of lab work. Moving into the knowledge transfer manager role is much more people focused and required an open and social attitude. I speak with different stakeholders within the community and this is the most enjoyable part of my work. I love connecting with people and learning about their different experiences and backgrounds. The most rewarding thing is hearing, for example, that a business has found new collaboration opportunities or succeeded in a bid or funding application, or hearing from graduates who have undertaken an internship or a training opportunity in quantum. Seeing the impact of my work on the people in the community is really enjoyable and rewarding.
You’ve done a lot of work to promote the opportunities for women in quantum. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work you and the KTN are doing in this area?
I’m very keen to have more women represented in quantum as a sector, and we’ve got so many active networks specifically working to promote women in quantum, for example, the Women in Quantum network and the One Quantum community. The KTN as a whole is committed to diversity and inclusion, including gender representation. There are a few programmes run by the KTN that aim to promote and also support women entrepreneurship, such as the Women in Innovation Programme. I’ve previously organised networking events for women in quantum technologies in the UK so that they could meet, chat generally and discuss some of the main barriers facing them, whether that’s as part of a career in industry or academia. These conversations are really important; however, gender representation is just one part of a bigger topic and conversation around diversity and inclusion. My efforts in all my activities are focused on ensuring that everyone feels included and free to join in and ask questions. This is something that is very important and obviously I am keen to keep pushing forward.
Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come and what are your hopes for the future?
I would say quantum computing is one of the areas I am very excited to see realised. It’s still not there yet, but I’m excited to see what it will look like and how it will impact upon ordinary people. I also look forward to seeing how quantum will be integrated in our communications networks in the future and how this is going to be brought to everyday users, rather than the high-end users like big companies. It is also exciting to think about the advantages that are being promised by quantum, including higher cybersecurity and protection of our data in the future, and improving our healthcare systems with quantum, for example. I am excited to see how quantum can be used for more non-invasive imaging, for example, for diagnosis of things like cancer. We spoke about gender imbalances earlier and breast cancer is one of the biggest causes of mortality of women, I’m excited to see how we can prevent things like this using quantum and how quantum can achieve a great social impact and potentially reduce inequalities in women’s health research. Likewise, the potential for quantum to contribute to tackling issues such as climate change is very exciting for me. These are the main areas that I am excited about and that I hope quantum can contribute to. I think there are so many challenges across the world that quantum can contribute to resolving and I’m hopeful that more and more conversations around this will happen very soon.
What transferable skills do you think you have gained throughout your career and what do you think are the most important skills for a career in quantum?
I get asked this question a lot and something I always come back to saying is problem-solving skills. They are key, more so than knowledge itself, because there is an abundance of resources and information online to help you to gain knowledge. However, problem-solving and experience cannot be found like that. The professional experience I gained as an engineer helped me to develop good problem-solving skills and prepared me to address and solve problems efficiently, no matter what the problem might be. I worked in different engineering sectors and areas, and in quite challenging and demanding environments like manufacturing and production environments, and this experience taught me how to adapt quickly, which is also important in both industrial and academic environments. Alongside problem-solving and adaptability, it is important to develop good communication skills and to continue to use and develop them over time. Seek opportunities to communicate about what you do to different groups and tailoring your messaging to the audience you are speaking to.
What would you say to young people who are considering pursuing a career in STEM, particularly in quantum?
The most important thing is to work hard. It is also important to persevere in whatever you do because it can take time to see the rewards of your efforts in a career in science. However, the rewards are well worth the wait and when you start to see the results of your efforts it is incredibly satisfying!