Having originally studied Health Sciences and Public Health, Kathryn Chen decided to pursue a career in science policy. She is currently Head of Science, Innovation and Policy at the British Consulate-General in Toronto and has a specific remit of developing collaborations between the UK and Canada, in the field of quantum. We caught up with Kathryn to find out more about what inspired her to take up a career in science policy, what excites her most about quantum and the collaboration ideas she is working on at the moment.
You have a background in Health Sciences, what attracted you to a career in science policy?
I really enjoyed the hard sciences like biology, chemistry and physics when I was growing up but during my undergraduate degree, which was in Health Sciences, I discovered that I enjoyed the intersection of science, social science and the humanities too. I really enjoyed looking at science and health through a more holistic and interdisciplinary lens and considering the social, cultural, economic, and political impact. I did not know what I wanted to do, I was not someone who definitely wanted to be a doctor or an engineer or anything like that, but I felt that policy was an area where I could use my interest and skill set because it would force me to ask broader questions and consider how science will impact society.
What does your role as Head of Science, Innovation and Policy at British Consulate-General, Toronto, involve and what would a typical day at work be like for you?
As part of the UK Science and Innovation Network, the aim of my team is to foster international science collaborations and science and innovation partnerships between the UK and Canada. My team operates out of the various consulates across Canada. I am based in Toronto, but we also have people in Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, and Ottawa where the High Commission is. Everyone leads on their own thematic area and mine is quantum, so my goal is to advance UK-Canada quantum collaborations. We are also responsible for knowing the science and innovation landscape more broadly, outside of quantum, locally within our provinces.
A typical day can vary for me, but I spend a lot of time engaging with stakeholders from both countries, whether it is people in academia, industry or government, and trying to understand what collaborations might be possible, which might be most beneficial and why. I have a lot of meetings, both virtual and in-person, and send a lot of emails. My role also involves a lot of project management because, like I said earlier, I am working to advance UK-Canada quantum collaborations, so I work on various projects that will help achieve this goal. Because we are based in Canada but work for UK government, sometimes we are asked to help to support incoming missions and delegations from the UK on various science and technology areas as well. I also get to attend some really fun events, last night I attended an ‘un-gala’ (basically a gala that was not a gala as it was western themed!) on Canada’s Clean Economy and that was really fun! My job is mostly desk based but my favourite part is getting out there and meeting people and connecting with people from the quantum community face-to-face. I am really excited and grateful to be working in this space.
You mentioned that you have a specific remit of leading on initiatives to grow UK-Canada collaborations on quantum, can you tell us a little bit more about this and what you propose would work?
In terms of collaborations, there are a lot of opportunities, but I have got to focus on areas that are going to have real impact and that are mutually beneficial. There was a roundtable in 2021 that convened experts from the UK and Canada and one of the key messages was that training, skills and mobility are really important. In order to upskill people and create talent, the suggestion of bi-lateral quantum summer schools and exchanges was made by the experts and I can see the real benefit of those so I am excited to be working on them at the moment. This is drawing on my previous experience as it is looking at the human interactivity element of things.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the bilateral summer school and exchange scheme for students and early career researchers in quantum? What would this type of scheme look like and enable?
I am really excited to be working on these opportunities. Following a recent funding call by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK, there will be two international summer schools hosted in the UK in the summer of 2023. The first (ISSQT 2023) is being organised by the network of UK Quantum Technology Hubs in partnership with many Canadian institutions. It has a focus on quantum technologies spanning communication, computing, imaging and sensing, and will take place at the University of Birmingham campus in early August. The second is being organised by the University of Bristol and the focus is on integrated quantum photonics (ISSIQP 2023); it will take place in late July. Both Schools are open to PhD students and early career researchers registered in programmes in the UK and Canada and travel bursaries are available. The ISSQT is also free to attend.
Hopefully these two Schools will be successful and mark the beginning of a more long-term collaboration with annual summer schools rotating between Canada and the UK with some industry led elements as well as academic lectures too. I hope that the summer schools will provide some hands-on training and development of transferable skills for PhD students and early career postdoctoral researchers. There is a growing need for more talent in both industry and academia in this field and recruitment is becoming a very competitive thing, so I think this work is becoming more and more important as the field progresses. A summer school and a student exchange scheme can only be helpful, both for the individuals and the community as a whole. I really hope that down the line this type of activity will create opportunities for more bilateral research and commercialization collaborations in the future.
Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come?
That is a tough question! I would probably have to say that there is not one particular area I’m really excited about, some technologies are still in the early stages so there are a lot of unknowns as to how they will actually impact upon us. I think I am therefore most excited to see how the technologies actually integrate into our everyday lives and how we will get to the point where we do not even notice we are using quantum technologies. We know that quantum technologies are going to change so many sectors and areas of the world, and it is all so exciting. It is going to be cool to see what the new norm will be like and it is great to be involved in that.
What are your hopes for the future?
Along with what I have mentioned about how I am hopeful that quantum technologies will become part of the norm for all of us, I also hope quantum will become less of a scary word for people. I find a lot of people are put off when I mention that I work in quantum and so I hope it can be brought down to a level where people can really understand it and understand the many applications. Building quantum literacy across the world would be great and I think outreach work with schools is key so that the next generation can learn about these technologies and the opportunities in the field as soon as possible.
I also hope that we can bring more diversity into the field in the future. Having under-represented groups and I think especially more women and women of colour at the table would be fantastic. It will only help make quantum more interdisciplinary and ensure that these technologies are truly beneficial for all of society.
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?
It really does depend on what kind of career you want to have in quantum. For some jobs you must have a technical background and a degree relevant to the field. At the moment, lots of technical roles require PhDs, but there is a movement to change this and help more people without PhDs but perhaps with Masters degrees to enter the field. I know in Canada there is a specific quantum Masters programme being developed and I think that will be great in helping to diversify the field. Obviously, it takes a lot of time for people to obtain a PhD, however, you do not always need that level of qualification to learn and be good in a role. There are also many roles in the field that do not need a degree in quantum at all, and I am an example of someone working in the field without that background. I think having an understanding of the sciences can be useful, but it is not always necessary, especially if you work on the policy or innovation side of things. I am finding that a lot of people who work in quantum on the policy side do not even have a science degree, and that is where an understanding of the humanities, social sciences, policy, and political sciences really helps, because in policy it is about identifying gaps using critical thinking skills and understanding the societal, political or economic implications these technologies could potentially have.
Communication skills and being able to talk to people and develop connections is really important. Being able to wear different hats and talk to people from all different backgrounds is very useful and I am learning that people are keener to work with you when you meet them in person. I know it can be scary to go out there and network, and I still get a little bit nervous sometimes, but it is all a learning experience and so important to being successful.
Understanding the landscape is important, whether that is at a local or global level. Having a good appreciation of who the big players are in quantum and even understanding the role that different countries are playing is really helpful. Not getting bogged down in the small things is important in my role and being able to see the bigger picture in order to come up with a vision for the next 5-10 years is key. I am still figuring that out, but it is very interesting!
What would you say to young people who are considering pursuing a career like yours?
I would say if you have an interest then try to pursue it. I think that following your interest is really important and will help you to get into the field because if you are passionate about something it will come through and people will want to work with you more. I would also say having a network is really important as well. Lastly, it is a really exciting time to join this field and the community is looking for young people who are excited to work in this space. It is a great field to get into and a really good time to do so!
- The inaugural UK/Canada International Summer School in Quantum Technologies (ISSQT 2023) will take place at the University of Birmingham between August 1st and 10th. The School is free to attend and travel bursaries are available. For more information and to apply, visit the school website. Deadline for applications: 24 February 2023.
- The inaugural UK/North America International Summer School in Integrated Quantum Photonics (ISSIQP 2023) will take place at the University of Bristol between July 19th and 26th. Travel support is available. For more information and to apply visit the school website. Deadline for applications: 10 March 2023 (for visa holders)/ 10 April 2023 (for those not requiring a visa)