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November 23, 2020

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Being a Quantum Scientist – an interview with Dr Ryan Parker

Having been told he wasn’t good enough to study triple science at GCSE, Ryan Parker went on to study A Level chemistry, obtain a degree in chemistry and subsequently a PhD in quantum technologies! Ryan now works as a Research Specialist in Quantum Technologies at BT, we recently met with him to find out more about his journey, his work and what it’s like to work in industry.

It’s clear that you’re very passionate about physics, but what interested you in quantum and what attracted you to it?

I’ve got quite a weird background, I didn’t do physics at A Level, I didn’t even do triple science, I was told that I wasn’t good enough at science by my physics teacher, weirdly enough! I did chemistry A Level because my parents made me, I wanted to do drama instead but they wouldn’t let me. I found that I really liked chemistry, it was my best subject at A Level, so I went to uni to do that. I had a year in industry when I as at uni, working in pharmaceuticals. After that, I realised I didn’t enjoy being in the lab and so wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for my dissertation. I contacted the quantum lecturer at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where I studied for my undergraduate degree, he was one of the only quantum lecturers there and I asked if I could work with him. In chemistry, you study a small amount of quantum but not a lot, so I didn’t know much before my dissertation, which was in quantum optics. I realised I really liked it and decided to do a PhD in it. I did my PhD at the University of York with Tim Spiller, I really loved it. I didn’t know anything about quantum communications before I did my PhD, I’d never studied that, so I learnt masses!

You undertook a PhD in quantum communications technologies, can you tell me a bit more about what you studied and how you found studying for a PhD in general?

So, my PhD was in entanglement swapping, it’s theoretical and will eventually be applied to future quantum communications. It has elements of Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), it wasn’t specifically that, but I learned a lot about it. At the moment you can’t do what I proposed in a lab at all really, you can do bits of it, but you can’t do the whole thing yet. It was really hard because I knew nothing about it before, I didn’t even really know the maths beforehand, so I literally did learn everything and I did it in exactly three years, to the day, from when I started, I was determined to do this so I could go and get a job! I actually really enjoyed it, there are times when you have your freakouts and complete meltdowns, but that’s quite normal and almost enjoyable in the end because everyone else you make friends with is in the same boat as you. Everyone in our group has now finished, which is nice, we all pulled through together. It was really, really hard work and people don’t often say that, people know it’s hard to get a PhD but it was really difficult. I enjoyed it, I learned so much. I had some really good lectures by guest speakers at the University of York who I now see through work and remember.

You are currently a Research Specialist in Quantum Technologies at BT; please can you tell us why you chose this role and a little more about your work?

I was interested in working in academia, but those positions are typically short-term or temporary (i.e. on fixed term contracts) and I didn’t want that at first, I wanted to have a full-time, stable job where I don’t have to worry in a couple of years’ time. BT were employing for a quantum position and so I applied. We’re still quite a small team of people focusing on quantum at BT but more and more people are working on it. BT have worked on QKD for the last few years, they work with the University of York as a partner of the Quantum Communications Hub, we have the QKD network link from Adastral Park, where I work, in Ipswich, to Cambridge University; it was built before I started and has been going for about 3 years now. BT are looking at the commercialisation of QKD and looking at whether it’s a viable option for the business, most of our work is on proof of concept trials with customers. A lot of what I do is engagement with customers, we’re involved in a lot of different collaborative projects, the Quantum Communications Hub being one of them and a lot of other projects funded by Innovate UK, mostly through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

What are the applications of your work in industry and also everyday life?

QKD is one of those technologies that, in an ideal world where everyone has lots of money, everybody would use QKD. At the moment, cost and other technical issues makes it impractical, but if you can have QKD on a chip and have it everywhere, you would use it as it’s the most secure way of communicating, it would future proof the world essentially. At the moment, it’s still quite expensive, but it will become cheaper when the technology can be mass produced.  I think in the near term you’ll see bigger customers going for it, for example, the finance sector. Anything where long-term data security is important will be the first use case for QKD and quantum communications in general, along with things such as healthcare where health records can be backed up by QKD.

How easy was it to get a job in industry and what are the advantages of working in industry compared to in academia?

I was lucky in that my supervisor was contacted by my boss at BT, as they know each other through the Quantum Communications Hub, this didn’t mean that I automatically got the job, of course I had to have the right background and apply and interview for the job, but working under a well-known and renowned supervisor was helpful to me.

I would encourage people to look at industry for jobs, there are many more vacancies in academia, however, there are still great jobs in industry. I have so much respect for people who have lectured in the field for years, if you know exactly what it is you want to do in academia, you can focus in on that, but also expand as you have students who almost teach you things. But, in industry you do learn a really broad set of skills and for me, it’s the social side of being in industry I like too, I liked the idea of going to a company.

What transferable skills do you think you’ve gained throughout your journey?

I’ve got very good presentation skills. I’ve become really adept at presenting quantum technologies to people who know nothing whatsoever about them and by the end they understand it. I spent an hour the other day talking researchers at BT through the Quantum Internet, I worried the talk would be too in-depth but actually people loved it, asked questions and were really interested. I think that’s the skill I’ve developed most, getting people interested and excited, which is a really useful skill in industry.

What would a typical day at work be for you?

There’re all sorts that I do, it varies quite a lot. As I said, we’re quite a small team and there’s a lot that we do, so it does vary, but, most of what I do is collaborative project based, we get contacted a lot by customers so I do a lot of presenting, internally – to other BT colleagues, and externally – to customers, as the quantum expert. I also try to get to the gym on a lunch time, whenever I can!

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

Anything entanglement based I love, because I did my PhD on entanglement. At the moment, entanglement isn’t used for QKD because it’s so hard to do, but it does add an extra layer of security, so anything involving entanglement will be incredibly exciting to see. Quantum computing is obviously the main thing everybody is the most excited to see, me included. The quantum internet will also be really cool, once everything is working together and is up and running!

What advice would you give to young people who hope to pursue a career in science, particularly quantum physics or engineering in industry?

For school students – this is cheesy, and everyone hears stories where people say teachers never told them they were good enough, however, this genuinely happened to me with my physics teacher when I was of GCSE age. That really wasn’t very inspiring and I never would have stayed in physics if it wasn’t for my parents not letting me drop science at A Level, if I had my own way I probably wouldn’t have done it. But, when you’re so young, different people shine better at school than others, I did ok at school, not amazing, but alright and now I’ve got a PhD. If you’re interested, just go for it! I was always interested in physics and science, even as a little kid, but I never assumed I was good enough to go and do it at uni, but you always are clever enough and you will pick it up really quickly!

For PhD students – just keep going! It’s very horrible and you have the worst times, but you also have the best. I was told on the first ever day of my PhD that you go through peaks and troughs for your PhD, I didn’t think that was useful information, but actually, it really is. You do literally go through that, as you go through your PhD your peaks get higher and troughs get much worse, you have amazing highs and then realise the next week something is wrong. The week before I submitted my thesis, my supervisor realised I had a mistake in my calculations that ran right through my thesis, I had to literally rerun everything, but I did it. I look back and it’s quite funny, but it wasn’t at the time. Stick with it – you will always finish!

Since this interview took place, Ryan has moved on from BT to take up the role of Quantum Specialist at ArQit.