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When Shohini Ghose was a young girl growing up in India, she wanted to be an astronaut. “The first Indian astronaut went to space when I was a child,” she says, adding “I was immediately inspired.” She also watched Star Trek with her brother every Sunday morning. “This had a huge influence on me.”
Combining this inspiration with the fact that she always excelled at mathematics and physics and never backed down from a challenge, she set her sights on studying the laws that govern the Universe.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Growing up, Ghose explained that she had always been a curious individual and took interest in mysteries and puzzles.
“Eventually I realized the greatest mysteries are the mysteries of the universe, like how does the universe works and why do the planets orbit around the sun, for example.”
Later in life, Ghose realized she could solve these mysteries by collecting clues from the universe and finding patterns and evidence to build a story.
“To me, science—physics in particular—was basically like being a detective and that really appealed to me. I had good teachers who encouraged me [and] my parents encouraged me,” said Ghose.
What did you study?
For her undergraduate degree, Ghose adventurously moved across the world to Ohio’s Miami University in the United States. She started out with a major in mathematics but soon realized she wanted something more applied, so she took on physics as a second major. During her undergraduate degree she was offered a summer research position with Dr. Perry Rice at Miami University where she studied how atoms interact with a laser using simulations of quantum optics calculations. “It was a big moment of discovery for me,” she says. “It was exciting that I was doing something new that hadn’t been done before. It was my first taste of research and gave me confidence. My supervisor, who is still a mentor to me to this day, encouraged me to go to graduate school.”
Ghose then moved to the University of New Mexico to start her graduate studies. While there she at times noticed some unequal treatment that favoured men over women in the physical sciences.
“The classrooms were dominated by men. Professors would walk into the classroom and greet us with ‘good morning gentlemen.’ The professors wouldn’t ask me questions and I wouldn’t get invited to study groups. I felt alone and doubted whether I should even be there.”
She then met the professor that would become her PhD mentor, Dr. Ivan Deutsch, who she describes as “amazing.” She realized the importance of good mentors during this time. “You do need mentors,” she says, “if you choose to follow your passions, the scientific challenges in the field are easier to face… it’s the rest you need support for.”
Ghose was very successful during her PhD in physics. Her thesis, entitled Quantum and classical dynamics of atoms in a magneto-optical lattice, focused on how atoms interact with lasers. She found that at the quantum scale, atoms tunnel through barriers as if walking through a wall. Her PhD thesis laid the groundwork for the eventual experimental observations that were used to create the first ever “movie” of atoms exhibiting this behaviour. Her research also had applications to quantum information processing—the field of study that determines how we can use quantum physics to come up with new ways to communicate. “It’s a field that’s a little reminiscent of the teleportation in Star Trek,” Ghose says.
What did you do after Phd?
In 2003, Ghose moved to Canada to start a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Calgary. Only one year later, in 2004, she heard about an opening for an Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) and saw it as her next challenge. “I was sure I wouldn’t get it as I did not have much post-doc experience at that point, but my supervisor encouraged me to apply and I thought it would be good practise for the future.”
She was offered the position and moved to WLU in Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) in 2005 where she continues to work today as a Professor. During her time at WLU, she has continued her work in the field of quantum physics studying topics such as quantum unpredictability—exploring whether atoms have a kind of butterfly effect where small changes cause big effects—and studying applications of quantum physics to quantum computing and teleportation.
What do you do as physicist?
As a Laurier professor, Ghose studies a topic called “quantum information science,” which can use the laws of quantum physics to access information for specific tasks, such as computing, communication and security, among other factors.
“So if we can take these peculiar quantum laws which are like superpowers and use them, we can do interesting things like teleportation, for example, or have superfast computers that completely beat any known existing computer at certain tasks.”
Looking to the future, Ghose is excited to continue her award-winning research in quantum physics, probing the Universe for answers to burning questions. We are hoping teleportation continues to be a theme! About the status of women in physics, she says, “Things are improving. We’re seeing that people are more open to talk about changes. It’s important to start the conversation. Are we changing fast enough? No. But I have hope for the future.”