An interview with a PhD student

Ugo Zanforlin

Heriot Watt University
PhD student in Quantum Telecommunication Systems (awarded in 2020)

Growing up close to the ancient University of Padua, where he would one day study, Ugo had a great interest in physics from a very young age. He loved the open view of reality that physics provided and found the fact that physics is fundamental to and overlaps with biology, chemistry and engineering truly fascinating.  Ugo spent five years at the University of Padua, studying physics and in his words ‘meeting amazing people and teachers’ who fuelled his passion for the subject. Ugo’s interest in quantum physics grew from his undergraduate study of quantum physics and stemmed from learning the idea that ‘something can change just by looking at it’. Following his undergraduate and Masters degree, Ugo took the leap to move to the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh where he is now undertaking his PhD in Quantum Telecommunication Systems. We caught up with Ugo at the Association for Science Education (ASE) Conference in 2019 and he told us a little more about his interest and current work in physics:

It’s very clear that you’re very passionate about physics but what interested you in quantum? It’s an optional direction, so what attracted you?

With classical physics, for example in classical mechanics, you know everything is dictated by formulas and classical mechanics dictates how a system will evolve. However, in quantum physics, you learn very early on that the process of measuring a system can actually change the system. This is really important because it makes you question how it’s possible that something can be changed just by looking at it. This idea is what actually got me interested and as soon as you go deeper and deeper into the quantum realm you always find something even more strange, something that doesn’t make sense or add up, but if you look at it in the right way, taking into account that everything in reality is quantum, you can try to understand.

What exactly is it that you are working on for your PhD studies?

I am working on applying quantum physics to digital communication systems. More specifically, I'm working on what we call quantum amplifiers to solve the issue that when you try to transmit a signal between 2 different parties, you encounter some distance limitations meaning you cannot send a message beyond certain distance scales.  I’m trying to find a way to increase the communications distance to further the real world deployment possibilities.

Are quantum communication systems superior to classical ones?

I wouldn’t say superior, I would say different. This is because they’re basically the same kind of technology using different approaches, the overall, underlying physical process is basically the same but in quantum systems you use some strange properties that will assure the security of the system.

Is there a typical day in the lab/ office?

That is actually the most interesting part about being a PhD student. You can never find a day which is the same as the previous one, you always find something different, something amazing, something that you wouldn't expect. I’m not saying everything is perfect, there are some times where I question myself because I'm an experimental physicist so it's not always a straight narrow path. You always find some difficulties in the middle of a bumpy road, however, most of the time I really enjoy doing what I do because of the challenges - having challenges keeps it interesting.

How easy do you think it is for people to get involved?

The earlier you start to think, the better. Today it's commonly said in physics that nobody can understand quantum mechanics or quantum physics. I think if quantum physics was introduced in elementary school and high school, it would be easier for students, at an undergraduate level, to actually grasp the meaning behind it, so it wouldn't be that challenging.

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

Quantum key distribution and quantum cryptography because I think they are the safest and also the easiest quantum technologies that can be implemented in real life, because we have all the components and we don't require any fancy high tech equipment, we already have the fibre networks required. I think quantum information in quantum cryptography is the safest bet and that we will definitely see this in my lifetime.