An interview with a quantum scientist during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr Akhil Kallepalli

University of Glasgow
Research Fellow

The team at Quantum City partner QuantIC caught up with Akhil Kallepalli to find out more about joining Professor Miles Padgett’s Optics group last year and the challenges he has faced during the COVID pandemic

Akhil moved to Glasgow in April 2020 after finishing his PhD at Cranfield University to join Professor Padgett’s Optics group as a Postdoctoral Research Associate. He is in the process of submitting his first paper in an experiment set up in the lab but controlled by computer from home.

Akhil you are undertaking your postdoc at the University of Glasgow, what exactly are you working on and what is a typical day for you?

As a postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Glasgow, I am currently working on a project investigating novel imaging techniques using single-pixel imaging methods for rapid sensing. In addition to this, I am pursuing personal projects using my experience in airborne hyperspectral imaging (masters’ research) and biomedical optics (doctoral research). I have had the joy of working with 2 undergraduate students and taking them through to the completion of their final year projects which I found to be one of the highlights of the past year at the University.

A typical day varies based on either being in the office or working from home. When working at the lab, it is spent surrounded by optical components and optimising, testing new methods and algorithms. I have managed to find a solution using remote desktop access for working from home – so once a system is setup in the lab, it is easy enough to work from home and run experiments overnight. When working from home, I am usually writing research articles and attending meetings in my various roles within the University, IEEE, Institute of Physics and promoting mental health awareness in my leadership role at Dragonfly Mental Health.

Can you tell us what attracted you to take a role in quantum imaging and how you got to where you are?

My research interests in the past few years have been in imaging methods and applications in biomedical research. While my background helps me understand one half of that end goal, working at the University of Glasgow within the Optics Group with Prof Miles Padgett and Prof Sonja Franke-Arnold and their teams helps me gather experience and expertise in the various imaging techniques. Quantum imaging could potentially have phenomenal applications in the biomedical domain and thus, I gravitated towards working here. I continue to be motivated to bring these niche research domains closer for greater impact in medical imaging for diagnostics. My background has a mixture of working with imaging applications across multiple fields – satellite and airborne remote sensing, laser applications in tissue imaging and imaging through the skin. My current research is a natural progression in gaining the expertise to strengthen my research profile for future projects.

I understand you moved to Glasgow in the middle of the COVID pandemic – how was that for you and how have you managed to settle into life in Glasgow?

Moving to Glasgow in April last year was quite the challenge. Moving to a new city is a challenge in itself and the pandemic did not make that any easier. However, when it came to finding a group to talk to and engage with, the Optics Group members were very welcoming. We had regular meetings on Zoom (social or work-related) that helped me feel like a part of the group before meeting people in person for months. Glasgow itself has been a good experience; I found a place to settle into in the West End which made access to shops and food outlets relatively easy. I am only just beginning to explore Glasgow and the surrounding area and I must say – it has been quite wonderful! This definitely has to be one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

What challenges to your research (if any) have you experienced during the COVID pandemic, how have you adapted?

The greatest challenge I have experienced was integrating myself into the research group. In the absence of the pandemic, the first few weeks would have been about familiarising myself with the Group’s labs, experiments and research. This was not possible. Additionally, once the labs were open on a rota basis, it turned out to be quite a steep learning curve when not being allowed to speak to other lab members. Most of these challenges were resolved over Zoom as the group members are extremely friendly and collaborative.

Finally, discovering a remote way to access my lab system and experiment has meant that I could do the majority of the work from home while only needing to come in when required. This is probably not sustainable with dynamic experiments that require physical input but through the course of the pandemic, it meant progress was possible.

Has anything positive come out of working from home?

One of the biggest positives has to be the ability to work remotely. I have made it so that my meetings are scheduled for the days when I am working from home while being able to remotely control my experiment. Also, the limited lab time helps forces me to prioritise tasks and make the best use of the available time. I think, for me, the biggest takeaway from this past year is the flexible working hours and building the discipline to make the best use of time while being able to focus on actively trying to support a healthy work-life balance.

What are you looking forward to now that restrictions are easing in terms of your research project.

People. Definitely. The collaborative and general nature of research is dependent on researchers discussing ideas, experimental strategies and planning the best way forward. This can only happen through conversations. While email and Zoom has a suitable temporary substitute, they are exactly that – substitutes.

I am looking forward to research discussions in the offices and labs once again.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be considering a career in quantum imaging or quantum technologies?

Be prepared and open to learning each day.

The people you work with are just as important, if not more than the actual subject/topic you are working on. Science is collaborative, so surround yourself with people who make you want to do this every day.

Do not forget that the “horizontal” breadth of knowledge is just as important as the “vertical” depth of the subject. While you train to become an expert in a niche area, it is also important to not lose sight of the bigger picture as you may find a novel juxtaposition of concepts that could help you make carve out a place in the research domain. This expertise will make you unique and help you create a positive impact.