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December 6, 2021

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An interview with a Quantum Scientist – Dr Igor Konieczniak, University of York

Having enjoyed all sciences at school, Dr Igor Konieczniak decided to run with his interest in biology and chemistry, and apply it to a degree in pharmacy. However, after a number of years working in the field, Igor decided that it wasn’t for him and chose to pursue a career in physics instead, a subject which sat at the forefront of his inquisitive mind since being a small child. He began preparing for his career change by studying for an undergraduate degree in physics at night school in his home town of Curitiba, Brazil, before undertaking a Masters and PhD in quantum at the University of São Paulo. Following this, Igor held a postdoctoral position in São Paulo, before applying to work at the University of York on a project developing quantum secure communications technologies, where he still works today. We caught up with Igor to find out more about his journey from pharmacy to quantum, his work and its applications, and advice he’d give to others hoping for a career in STEM.

You have a background in pharmacy, can you tell us a little more about your journey to working in quantum? 

I enjoyed science at school, all three sciences in fact; I loved learning about how the world works and carrying out experiments at home. I decided to take my interest in biology and chemistry further and study for a degree in pharmacy. After my studies, I began working for a net pharmacy, essentially a big company with lots of small pharmacy stores. I stayed for a while and took up a managerial role but found that I wasn’t enjoying it. At a training session I attended around this time, someone said to me “the things you are talented in are the things that are always on your mind”, this really made me think and I realised, the one question always on my mind was ‘what is light?’. I decided to pursue this and signed up to do an undergraduate degree in physics at night school, in my home town of Curitiba. I found that, being a mature student, I knew how to study, I really enjoyed it and did very well.  At this point, I decided to leave pharmacy altogether and obtained some small scholarships to support myself financially. I also worked in some research labs alongside my course, to gain more experience and training. During my undergraduate course I became fascinated by quantum optics and became a trainee in an optics research lab, which was the research area closest to experimental quantum optics available. We studied the optical properties of semiconductors. In Brazil, there are two paths an undergraduate course can take: one is focused on teaching, the other is focused on research. I followed both, and obtained the teaching element first. After this, I took up a postgraduate qualification linked to teaching, based on the theory of Mediated Learning Experience, developed by the Israeli psychologist Reuven Feuerstein. Meanwhile, I was finishing my research physics course when I applied for a number of postgraduate physics courses at several Brazilian universities. The University of São Paulo accepted me, and I decided to focus my career on research. I applied to different research groups, in semiconductors, quantum optics and complex fluids, which would have drawn upon my pharmaceutical knowledge, however, I chose to go into quantum optics as it was the one that answered my curiosity most. I really enjoyed this and so I decided to continue and do a PhD in quantum. After this, I continued and held a voluntary postdoctoral position in São Paulo, before I applied for the position working on quantum communications technologies at the University of York.  

What skills do you think you have gained from pharmacy that are beneficial to you in quantum? 

One particular skill I learned in pharmacy and continue to use today is methodical record keeping. In pharmacy, it’s very important to record everything you do as proof that you have done everything correctly and followed, for example, best sanitary practice. The other skill that I’ve brought with me is the ability to handle things very carefully and not damage or contaminate them. Working in a biology lab, safe handling is very important, and this is also important when handling optics equipment.  

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

In quantum communications, we take the quantum nature of things and the quantum properties that we cannot encounter in classical systems and use them to enable guaranteed secure communications. One quantum concept that is particularly useful for communications is the no-cloning theorem, which means you cannot copy general quantum information without losing something. This is really useful for quantum communications because it means that if someone spies and tries to copy a message you are trying to send, they’ll definitely alter the message and be detected so you will know that they are spying. This and other quantum properties were discovered many years ago, but recently we have begun developing technologies that utilise them. 

My work in quantum communications is related to communicating quantum signals with satellites in space. In order for quantum secure communications to happen right around the world, we must be able to send quantum signals to/from satellites, from/to many locations around the world. I’m using my experience in optics to develop systems that enable a quantum signal sent from a satellite to be the right shape and power and to hit the desired location on Earth. I’m also working on making sure that a telescope that receives such a signal can collect and transform the light correctly in order to be detected. Another project I’m working on aims to develop a system that will produce a very specific kind of light that has a quantum property that can be used to enhance quantum communications performance. This light can also be used to make very sensitive quantum measurements, so it can have more applications.  

What would a typical day at work be for you? 

So, I arrive at the lab and check my emails to see if there’s anything urgent and then I start my experiment for the day. Usually, I start this early in the day because it’s very complex and you have to make sure it is set up correctly before you can advance to the next step. If everything is working, I can perform my tests and then make any necessary changes to get to the next stage. That’s what physics research is all about, trying things and changing them to make advances and get to the next best thing. If things aren’t working, then I have to troubleshoot. I am working on a number of projects at the same time and so I have to manage my time accordingly. I also spend time in meetings with other people, discussing our experiments and plans. Of course, I also work with students and spend time teaching them how to do things too. Sometimes, I will show them something practically but also explain the theory behind it on the whiteboard, I really enjoy this.  

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

The area of quantum technology that has promised the world to us is quantum computing. We know the theory, however, there are so many things that are needed to make it work. I think everyone is keen to see where quantum computing can take us. Quantum communications technologies will probably be present in all high-end cryptographic systems in the future, but I think quantum computing will have the most impact upon our lives.  

What transferrable 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? 

The first skill, which I’m still learning, is to be comfortable in not knowing everything. Quantum is a very multidisciplinary area, so you will never be ready, you’ll never have all the background you need, so you need to be comfortable with that, and of course, have ways to cope with that and fill gaps. So, this means you also need to be comfortable with asking for help. You can’t do everything by yourself, you need to work with others. I’d also say you need to have persistence and resilience. In research in general, not just in quantum, because you are working at the cutting edge, things will not work, this can be really frustrating so you need to be able to deal with that. It helps to be stubborn, to not give up when things go wrong, and also to be methodical, systematic and able to keep cool in these situations. You need to be able to take a step back, find the problem and work methodically and systematically to fix it.  

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

I would say go for it! It’s an amazing field and is very rewarding. There’s always something to learn, it’s exciting and the field really is booming. There are a lot of opportunities and I believe we will be living in a quantum world very soon, so opportunities will continue to grow. Even if you don’t work as a researcher, there will be many other job opportunities. Technical positions will be required, for example, to work specifically with optical fibres or other equipment, so there are different roles that interested people could take on. Already there are many opportunities in quantum engineering and these will only become more common as the field grows.