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February 27, 2023

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An interview with a Quantum Researcher in Industry– Amelia Lees, BT

Amelia Lees loved science at school and so to keep her options open she studied Natural Sciences at undergraduate level. After undertaking a summer placement at BT Research during her degree, Amelia decided to accept an offer to join BT’s graduate programme to become a researcher. She has since progressed to becoming a Research Professional based in the Network Physics team, applying fundamental physics to real-world applications, and is currently working on quantum sensing for communications applications. We caught up with Amelia to find out more about her career journey so far, what she is working on and what a typical day is like for a researcher based in industry.

You have a background in Natural Sciences with a specialism in biophysics, can you tell us a little more about your journey to working in quantum? 

I really liked science at school and I could not decide what I wanted to study at university, so when I attended university open days I would block out as much time as I possibly could to visit all of the science departments. When I went to the University of York, I had a gap to fill and saw Natural Sciences was an option, so I went to see what that was all about. After attending a talk, I felt like Natural Sciences was the perfect subject area for me, it would enable me to keep learning about all of the sciences because it was so multidisciplinary. I looked around various universities that offered Natural Sciences but I found that I really liked how York worked and so decided to go there. I chose to specialise in biophysics because it seemed like the broadest subject I could possibly choose. People do not think biology and physics go very well together, but it is an emerging field which uses physics technique to study biology, and it makes it quite applicable to lots of different things. During the summer between my third and fourth year, I did a placement in applied research at BT. At the end of that placement, they offered me a graduate role and I decided to take it and joined their graduate scheme in 2019. I did not do any rotations during my time on the scheme because in research it takes so long to get up to speed on everything going on, especially in things like quantum, where there is so much background, you need a longer time to do a deep dive into it. I finished the graduate scheme last year and took up a role as a Research Professional within the Network Physics team. BT knew I wanted to work more on fundamental physics because a lot of the applied work here requires communication theory which I do not have a background in. Our team looks at how fundamental physics can be applied to new challenges that we have. The team had just been created when I joined it so I was one of the first people looking at how we can take certain physics concepts and apply it to communications. It just so happened that the first big project that we had as a team was in quantum, so that is how I got into quantum.

What made you decide to pursue a career in industry rather than a career in academia? 

I had a big debate with myself when I was leaving university regarding whether to stay in academia and do a PhD or take the industry job offer that I had. I asked people for their opinions but found it hard to get an unbiased view. Academics would talk about how brilliant academia was and likewise people in industry would do the same about industry. Whenever I speak to people about this now, I try to give an unbiased view and say that in academia there is an opportunity to become very specialised and work on something that you are really passionate about, whereas in industry, you have more freedom to pursue different things that are of interest to you. If you do a PhD you focus on one very specific area and do not really deviate from that, whereas in industry, if you come across something unexpected, you can often pursue it as long as there is a use case or business need. The lifestyle is also different. I can leave my work at the office when I go home for the day, however, my friends who are doing PhDs do not, they are thinking about it all the time. I am glad I chose industry as I enjoy the freedom that I have and I can develop other skills because I am not just doing research, I give presentations and talk to different people including those at universities and company CEOs etc., all the time.

How valuable do you think your summer placement experience was in your decision-making process regarding your career? 

It was definitely valuable. When I went into the placement, I thought it was either going to rule out industry as an option or I would love it. By the end of the placement, I had had a really good time, I was still really unsure what I wanted to do but the placement run by BT Research was incredible. Across the three months you live and work here and you get involved in real life projects. It was a great way to find out what was out there in terms of roles, I had no idea that this kind of role existed as it is not really talked about at job fairs etc. Nobody tells you it is possible to do research in industry when, in reality, places like BT have huge research departments working on all kinds of things. We have an entire campus in Suffolk that is purely focused on research, from things like 5G to QKD and beyond – we even have a drone lab!  

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

We are designing a new type of mobile receiver that is an atomic radio. We excite atoms so that they become really responsive to a certain frequency, in our case, that is the UK 5G frequency. Those atoms can in theory be much more sensitive than a conventional antenna can because the conventional antenna is limited by thermal noise and the atoms aren’t, they have quantum noise which is much lower. We are investigating whether these atoms can be used as sensors for 5G instead of conventional antennae and this could be great for things like the Internet of Things (IoT) because it means that devices could have much lower power requirements as they could detect much more sensitive signals. 

What would a typical day at work be for you? 

It varies quite a lot depending on the stage of project. Some days are very lab based, so I will come in and do some admin but then I will head to the lab for the rest of the day. In the lab, I could be setting up lasers or other equipment and inevitably having to do some problem solving before taking measurements and recording data. Then there is data analysis to be done which is very coding focused and requires working with applications like Python and Excel. Other days are more focused around writing up results, compiling reports and carrying out literature reviews. It is important that I find out what is going on elsewhere in the world that is at the forefront of my topic area. We work with universities, so some time is spend writing papers with collaborators there and trying to align our goals with university goals and making sure we come to an arrangement where everyone is happy with the progress. I love the variety of my role!  

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

I think it would mostly be what I work on but aside from that, I am just really excited to see what works and what doesn’t over time. I went to a conference the other day and there were a lot of people there who were at the point of retirement, and they were saying how they have seen many changes over the last 40 years, many of which they never thought would happen. I am really looking forward to seeing which technologies are successful and integrated and which are not because I feel like it would be very unlikely for everything to work, but seeing which ones actually make a difference and have an impact over the next 50 years will be really exciting.  

What are your hopes for the future? 

I really enjoy the work that I do, however, it is in the very early stages and I would like to see it advance a bit more and see what happens. We have spent the last three years doing simulations and proof-of-concept work, building early stage lab stuff, but I hope to see the work progress in the next five years and be able to follow it through. I think I will gain a lot of skills from watching our work take that next step as well. I think I have a good grasp of early-stage research now, but I would like to learn more about how you go from a proof-of-concept all the way through to a product and how you commercialise it and pitch it to clients.

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 think I am quite good at talking to people. That is not necessarily the single most important skill for a researcher, but it is important, and I think if you struggle to communicate your idea and get people on board with your thinking that can be problematic. Alongside communication skills, you do need to have a strong technical background as well, however, some people have a strength in one and not the other. Some people are great technically but not so good at communicating, others are good at communicating but do not have the technical background, and I think I manage to bridge that gap well. I can talk to and understand technical people, but I also really enjoy presenting our work and I think that is a transferable skill that I have developed via many different activities including at university, through outreach work, and now in my current role.  

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

I would say, if you enjoy it, then absolutely go for it! You need to pick something that you love and that you really enjoy and find interesting, even if you think it is really hard. If you find an area interesting, you will want to get up every day and you will want to go and learn more and understand more about it. If you think it is just a shiny hot topic, but think it is boring then maybe pick a different subject. I love science, I think there is so much going on in each discipline of science, but it is really important that you choose to focus on something that you are enthusiastic about because that enthusiasm will come across. Without enthusiasm you may still succeed but you will not enjoy your job and you should aim to love it!