Anasua Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen
Congratulations on being awarded an infrastructure grant by The Carlsberg Foundation AND being named among the 100 most promising talents in the Danish business community by Berlingske (on the Berlingske Talent 100 list).
Please tell us about your research and why is it important.
My research involves quantum physics, a field with a deep connection to Denmark and the Niels Bohr Institute (which is currently celebrating 100 years). While the foundations of quantum mechanics were laid decades ago, only recently have people begun to harness the abilities it gives us to store, compute and manipulate information. My focus for quite a few years has been on building hardware for a quantum computer, out of the peculiar property called spin that an electron possesses. I also work on other fundamental phenomena that emerge when we look at matter at the nanometer scale, and at very low temperatures: quantum interactions can then dominate and reveal many novel and interesting properties.
Why is it important? Well, for one, many people have bet their reputations (and a lot of money!) that quantum computers will revolutionize many fields in our lifetime…for example, the life sciences, cryptography, the simulation of physics itself, and some we may not even have thought of yet. However, I must admit that that’s not really why I do what I do! The reality is that thinking up new experiments, seeing something new, testing an intriguing hypothesis, gets me incredibly excited; I find the quantum world fascinating, and I still find it a bit unbelievable that I’m actually paid to mess around in it.
What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?
Well, every low-temperature physicist needs cryostats to observe delicate quantum phenomena (a cryostat is a system that can cool down our experimental devices to very low temperatures…many times colder than outer space). And it’s an expensive piece of equipment, so the lack of one can often hold back early-career physicists. The Carlsberg Foundation has now funded just such a cryostat for me and QDev Professor Ferdinand Kuemmeth, and I’m pretty excited about it. We’re debating stenciling a Carlsberg logo and a “Possibly the coldest place in the world” on the cryostat.
Jokes aside, grants like these definitely open up our abilities to run some fast-turnaround experiments. One area where we would like to focus on, for example, is the quantum simulation of biological processes. For example, energy transfer in molecular complexes involved in photosynthesis has been proposed to have a quantum aspect, or even a speedup. By building nanoscale quantum devices that mimic these systems, we could understand them better and maybe even apply this knowledge to artificial photosynthesis. This year the Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded us a generous grant to explore just these aspects of nature [link].
Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work in and and visit many world-leading labs, and they have all shaped me as a physicist. I did my four-year undergraduate degree at Princeton University in the USA, which really stood out for letting bachelor students become intimately involved with research groups doing cutting-edge work. It’s something I really hope to help ramp up even more at KU in the future. After this, I moved to Europe, more specifically to do a PhD at University College London in the UK, during which period I was also a visiting research fellow at Cambridge University. In the last year of my PhD, I also got some funding to visit the Center for Quantum Devices at the NBI in Denmark, and soon after I decided I wanted to come here and work on the many exciting projects going on. I managed to get my own fellowship grant as a postdoc, brought it over to the NBI, and have been here since! I’m now an Assistant Professor, and it’s very nice to now be able to mentor students at the early stages of their careers.
How did you choose the field of physics you are now specialized in?
I don’t know if I really did choose it, or if it chose me! I feel what we are exposed to in our student years really matters in this regard. For example, at one point in my undergraduate years at Princeton, I worked on a project with Prof. Igor Klebanov, a celebrated string theorist and a really humble and patient mentor, and I was really vacillating between theory and experiment. But then, quite by chance, I started an experimental research project in the quantum physics group of Prof. Jason Petta, and just got completely hooked. In the end, I stayed there for three years…almost a EU-length PhD! I really liked the hands-on aspect of being an experimentalist. I think also one of the things that got me hooked in the lab was that I was allowed, or rather almost expected, to do everything the PhD students did, and delve deep into the physics despite being a Bachelor student. No excuses. That level of exposure and immersion in a field is hard to resist, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What motivated you to study physics?
Well, of course in high school I was always quite advanced at math and science, but to be honest I was also strong in the arts and very interested; in fact, for a long period of time I wanted to be an author. But early in high school my dad got me the Feynman Lectures in Physics (which I highly recommend!), which I read with fascination, and somehow after that I never considered doing anything else. I’ve found small things like that can suddenly set your course for life. The Feynman Lectures still sit on my shelf at work; I don’t know how great they are for learning to do physics, but they’re certainly unparalleled for sparking an abiding interest in the subject.
Did you have a role model or mentor? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?
I’ll be honest with you, as a woman and/or a minority in physics I wouldn’t be here speaking with you if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to have had vocal mentors early on in my career. If you’re under-represented in physics, an extremely reputation-based field, you absolutely have to have someone fighting in your corner. All of my advisors have been extremely supportive; and as they believed in me and were well-respected, brilliant people, I slowly began to believe that maybe I wasn’t such an impostor after all. In terms of role models, there are a great many women physicists I look up to; Chien-Shiung Wu for example was an absolutely brilliant experimentalist who showed the violation of parity. And yet hers is also a cautionary tale, because of course she never got the Nobel Prize despite her unquestionable genius. Though things are getting better! I’ve also somehow always been fascinated by great, charismatic physics educators, whether Feynman, or Sidney Coleman (sometimes called “the physicist’s physicist”) who seem to possess this elusive ability to make the most esoteric concepts fascinating; and isn’t that why we do physics, in the end?
What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?
Oh goodness, that’s a hard one! Well, I would say to them that despite the pernicious falsehood floating around our collective perception, genius is definitely not just the province of men. I would recommend they tell themselves (until they believe it!) that they belong in the field, that they belong in the lab, and that they are allowed to be as selfish as anyone else in their devotion to their academic interests and career.
What do you think can be done to advance the careers of women and minorities in physics?
I think current initiatives that redress historic biases in physics departments, such as examining funding and hiring policies, are a good start. However, I often feel a lot of the attrition happens in earlier stages, and in more insidious ways. To departmental committees, I would say that they should listen, really listen, to women in their departments—it’s harder than it seems, despite sounding obvious. To working academics and physicists, who I think have real power to redress things, I’d say that they need to actively examine their own labs, where injustice and implicit bias live. For example, a big difference can be made by consciously coauthoring and collaborating with women colleagues, and making sure to nominate them for committees, talks, positions and prizes. And one that I think goes unmentioned but is a big driver of inequality; make sure women and minorities in your lab are getting their fair share of the good projects, and of authorships (and first-authorships!) of manuscripts.