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May 9, 2023

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An interview with a PhD Candidate in Quantum Industry – Lakshmi Rajagopal, BT

Originally from India, Lakshmi Rajagopal studied Electronics and Communication Engineering at undergraduate level, before undertaking a Masters in Wireless Networks and Applications. During the second year of her Masters degree, she got an opportunity to do an internship at Toshiba, before gaining a permanent position there as a Software Engineer. Wanting to gain further qualifications, Lakshmi decided to apply to do a PhD and moved to UK. She is based at BT and is working on timing and synchronisation and optical atomic clocks.  We caught up with Lakshmi to find out more about her journey into quantum, what she is working on and advice she would give to others considering a similar career.

You have a background in Electronics and Communication Engineering, can you tell us a little more about your journey to working in quantum? 

I was interested in physics at school and that was why I chose to study Electronics and Communication Engineering at university. In the final year, I had a course on communication technologies and security and it was at that point that I realised that I have an interest in this field. I applied to do a Masters in Wireless Networks and Applications. However, there were two streams: wireless networks or mobile communications. I chose to focus on the latter. There was not much quantum involved at that point, it was mostly on telecommunication technologies, networks, and standards. I chose to do my Masters project in timing and synchronisation. The work was mainly theoretical, and I didn’t get much chance to do any experimental work, so after that I wanted to broaden my experimental and practical skills. During the second year of my Masters, I undertook an internship at Toshiba, working on smart card systems. Initially I was working on a platform which included embedded programming on the card chip for communications and on smart card applications, and then moved to security and encryption. After the internship I was offered a permanent position at Toshiba but after a year I started looking for PhD opportunities. I saw the opening at BT to work on MoSaiQC, a sub-project of iqClock, funded by the Quantum Flagship, European Commission H2020 programme. It was exactly what I had been hunting for and I went for it.  

What made you decide to pursue a career in industry and undertake a PhD there, rather than in academia?  

It was quite hard to find a PhD position I desired to apply for, because the research area I wanted to work in was so niche. However, I knew I wanted to do an industrial PhD rather than academic to have the best possible experimental opportunities. I really wanted to build my practical knowledge and I thought to do that, you must be out there with the team working on real world networks. From my experience, there is always a gap between theory and practicality. It is not that academia does not offer practical experiences, however, I thought there would be more opportunities in industry and that is why I decided an industrial PhD would be better for me.  

I understand that your work focuses on quantum clocks. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and what the applications of your work are?  

Our main work is based on looking into the quantum physics and technologies required for the development of industry based transportable optical lattice atomic clocks, which are precise strontium-based atomic clocks. We are working on different fundamentals to bring this technology out of the lab and use it in the real world. This technology is not used in networks at present and so the challenge is to see how it can fit well with the current architecture and how it can be a good source of timing for future networks and applications. 

At the moment, we have the networking technologies that serve the precision that we need, however, when we move beyond 5G we will need more precise timing on networks. At present, we are discussing nanosecond level of precision, which will move to sub-nanosecond level or even less in future. Networks need to support many real-time, ultra-reliable and low latency applications in the future to support interconnectivity and operability of multiple devices thereby having large amounts of data traffic flowing through the network in real-time. It is therefore important to ensure that the technologies being developed can eliminate any kind of latency which could affect the network performance. Optical clocks offer higher precision and stability in comparison to other types of clocks and so we are working out how to integrate them into the network architecture of the future.

There is also another potential reason for various research activities behind this technology. Satellite sources are threat to any application in terms of security. Future networks demand connectivity to every corner of earth, and it’s a fact that this has caused coverage to be one of the challenges with satellite technologies. Additionally, the timing requirements are rising day by day which could be several levels higher than what these technologies could provide in future. Hence, these optical clocks can fit well in future networks. We are not just looking at the next generation of technologies here but future generations beyond that as well.  

What would a typical day at work be for you? 

I work from home one day a week and in the office/lab for four days a week. While working from home, I do lots of reading about things like standards or latest research news. When I am in the lab, I work on various experiments, taking precision and accuracy measurements. I spend a lot of time trying to figure things out, understanding the real networks and work on different experimental tasks.  

Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come? 

I worked in encryption, so I would love to see more networks with quantum key distribution (QKD). Additionally, I would say I will be quite keen to see if timing information can be sent securely through QKD networks in future.  

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 a role like yours? 

I think I have developed and learnt a lot since beginning my PhD and I hope that will continue. One of the most useful things has been to be inquisitive. I have learned that I must ask questions of myself and others because if I don’t, I won’t learn. The other important thing is to keep as up to date as possible in the field. At BT we have a lot of expertise in timing and synchronisation, so I have been involved in lots of discussions about it with the team members to strengthen my understanding, ask whether the information I have acquired is practically possible and if not, why. I really enjoy technical conversations and engaging in them improves my understanding and my critical thinking skills, which are important.  

What are your hopes for the future? 

From my perspective, I would love to continue working in the timing and synchronisation world. This area really fascinates me and I never get bored learning or reading or working on new things. I want to keep working on novel things that will make a difference to our future. Upcoming networks will need the clocks that I am working on and I really wish to be a part in implementing this technology in actual networks in future.  

What would you say to young people who are considering pursuing a career in STEM, particularly in quantum? 

The field of STEM is continuously growing and there are so many up-and-coming technical streams which one can be involved in. Technologies like timing and synchronisation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cyber security will continue to grow and there will be many opportunities in these areas. Find out what you are interested in, at the end of the day that’s what’s important. I would suggest following different technologies to strengthen your understanding and develop a passion towards it. Technology moves quickly, it evolves really fast and that’s the exciting and motivating fact about it. There is huge scope for the next generation to have exciting careers in different technical fields and I would encourage anyone who is interested to get involved. Additionally, many organisations offer internship and apprentice roles, which helps one to evolve more in terms of skills acquired during the undergraduate level. I would suggest being involved in similar roles as well, as it not only helps you grow technically, but helps one to understand the industrial work culture at early stage of life as well.