An interview with a research associate in quantum

Dr Steven Johnson

University of Glasgow
Postdoctoral Research Associate

Steven started his physics journey by undertaking a theoretical physics degree, before switching paths to experimental physics and taking up a PhD at the University of Birmingham, building a cold atom system. From there he went into industry for 5 years and worked on imaging sensors that will ultimately be launched into space, specifically to Jupiter, in 2030! Steven is now working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Glasgow, working on ‘light detecting and ranging’ (Lidar). We caught up with Steven at the Association for Science Education (ASE) Conference in 2019 and he told us a little more about his current work in Physics:

You mentioned your transition from theoretical physics to experimental physics. I’d like to ask you first how easy that was and also what interested you in that particular direction (quantum) as it isn’t one of the core directions and a very niche area?

I moved from theoretical to experimental physics quite straightforwardly. I think theoretical physics gave me a much better understanding of mathematics and the basis behind the experimental things. I don’t think people should be siloed into theory or experimenting, you need to understand both to really understand physics. Quantum is always an interesting area, being a big subject since the 1920s, and it’s becoming more and more interesting.

You mentioned you spent some time in industry, can you tell us a bit about how easy it was for you to get a place in industry and the experience and skills that stint gave you?

I think there are a lot more jobs in industry than there are for people finishing their PhD and trying to stay in academia. It was definitely a worthwhile time – seeing how project management can work, learning about manufacturing components, supply chains, product engineering, marketing and sales. It was a fascinating area to be in, giving me a background understanding of how the stuff you buy gets made. For example, a lot of academics pay a lot of money for components and they may not understand the process or why it’s quite that much money.

Is there a typical day in the lab/ office for a researcher like yourself?

In term time, a typical week probably includes spending a day and a half on teaching duties (whether that’s being in the lab or planning resources) and then there’s a lot of time at my desk, reading papers. There’s probably about 5 papers a week I should be reading, if I have time, and otherwise it’s writing proposals, planning and research.

You are working on Lidar can you tell us what that is and the potential technical application?

Lot of people are familiar with radar, which is used to identify where planes are in the sky, using radio waves. The radio wave bounces off the object, comes back to the detector and enables people to know what’s in the sky. Lidar bounces light from objects, but you need very specialised equipment – you need a laser that you can control the pulse rate of and you need a detector that can measure very fast time periods (about 100 picoseconds). In that time, light will travel about 3cm, this means you can start to identify people, objects and cars using this technology. The technology can be used in self-driving cars (autonomous vehicles) to see what is in front of you – cameras are very good, but there’s often a lot of things they can’t see when you’re driving – using this system, you could “see” 200 metres down the road. You could also use lidar for surveying, you can measure buildings or archaeological sites and get a direct 3D measurement of something without any destruction such as digging.

Can you tell me how easy it is for people to get involved in quantum technologies? If you have a physics degree is it fairly straight forward nowadays?

A lot of jobs will need a basis of quantum understanding that you get from an undergraduate degree. As quantum technologies become more widespread, engineers and project managers with an understanding of quantum physics and expertise in the field will be needed.  If you do a quantum physics PhD then I’m sure there will be a lot of jobs for you in the years to come, as it becomes a bigger subject.

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

Imaging in wavelengths outside the visible for example, imaging the infrared and the ultraviolet wavelengths, which cannot be done with normal cameras. One of our projects is imaging gas leaks – cameras can be tuned to see gas being released from a pipe. There is currently a huge amount of loss of the gas we use in our houses from pipes and the more we can fix those, the more gas we can save, the less would be pumped into the atmosphere, therefore, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and also lowering energy bills.  This is a really interesting project with very interesting applications for the future!