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Women and the Quantum Revolution

Prof. Chandralekha Singh and two of her Ph.D. students, Lisabeth Santana and Mary Jane Brundage.

Prof. Chandralekha Singh and two of her Ph.D. students, Lisabeth Santana and Mary Jane Brundage.


March 9, 2021

        Dr. Chandralekha Singh, Professor of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the Discipline-based Science Education Research Center, is on a mission to build a diverse and industry-ready quantum workforce. Her Ph.D. in physics was about theoretical studies of electronic and nonlinear optical properties of conducting polymers. She also conducted research on self-organized criticality, superconductivity, transport of ions through ion-channels, phase diagrams of polymers, and polymers at interfaces. But two decades ago, Singh transitioned to conducting research on how to improve the teaching and learning of physics. An area of research she pioneered is focused on improving student understanding of quantum physics (PHY 1505460, 1806691, DMR 1661340, DUE 1524575). The goal is to help students become good problem solvers and independent learners. 

        One key part of being a researcher at the cutting edge of a field like quantum science is to learn to embrace failure. Dr. Singh told us about a time when she experienced failure: “Failure happens when you give up. I measure success through the students that I mentor. As a Ph.D. student, I remember spending more than six months figuring out why the nonlinear optical response I was getting was not what I was expecting. Despite many setbacks, I did not give up and finally figured it out. I learned a lot from the struggle along the way. These types of early experiences made me recognize the value of learning from your struggles, something I help students working with me recognize and embrace as well.”

        In fact, this focus on resilience is a key part of how she approaches her work as a faculty mentor: “I strive to ensure that all my students succeed in both their personal and professional pursuits. For me, mentoring involves a very intense and personal relationship with each mentee. I want each student to grow into what they want to be consistent with their goals. One thing I emphasize in my mentoring of students is that research is never a linear path and setbacks are common. Therefore, students should not take their setbacks personally and use them as a stepping-stone to learning and getting ahead. I actively work with each student to ensure that they develop a higher level of self-efficacy, persist despite setbacks, and keep their morale up. At the same time, while guiding them through, I make it clear to students that I have high expectations of them, and I am confident that they will meet those expectations by working hard and working smart. I also encourage students to present their research at conferences and discuss with them the importance of networking with other researchers in our discipline as much as possible. I support them in developing leadership skills and getting involved in various external activities like university committees and professional organizations. It is truly a privilege to be able to play a role in shaping the lives of students and see them blossom personally and professionally.”

        In a recent Scientific American piece titled, “The Quantum Computer Revolution Must Include Women,” Dr. Singh talked about the incredible progress that could be made in the field if it included the talents of women, what she calls the “factor of two problem.” She said that there have been positive developments to increase the number of women with physics, computer science, and engineering degrees who will be the quantum workers of the future, but that much more needs to be done. “Our educational system has a great deal of inertia, and will take time to respond to increased demand for quantum-ready scientists and engineers. Still, I am optimistic that this will happen. The space race in the 1960s produced a wealth of scientific and engineering talent that fueled the technology boom in subsequent decades. I think that a similar wave of talent will emerge from our educational system to support the second quantum revolution. And because of the factor of two, we can make rapid progress in the race to develop quantum technology if we do it right this time!” Each researcher can contribute by examining their own efforts in mentoring women and supporting their success. Singh recommends they, “reflect deeply about the issues that contribute to a ‘chilly’ climate and culture for women in physics and support efforts to make changes. It would require educating oneself on how to be a good mentor. Listening to the experiences of underrepresented groups and being an ally would help.”

        For her part, Dr. Singh is determined to make progress with her research to support her colleagues in their efforts to train the next generation of quantum researchers and workers, but her vision goes beyond that objective. She said, “My dream is to transform the world into a place where everybody has the opportunity for good education regardless of their background. Education is the key to ensuring that everybody is able to contribute their best to society.”

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