March 30, 2022

Article at Sydney Quantum Academy

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Venturing into the quantum world

Ritika Bazzad in the lab

Despite facing stumbling blocks, Ritika Bazzad has retained the resolve she needed to build a career at the forefront of quantum technology.

By Wilson da Silva

THE PAST SEVEN YEARS have seen a flurry of challenges for Ritika Bazzad, 22. Despite this, she’s overcome obstacles – including a global pandemic – and is now deep into a PhD in one of the most exciting scientific fields in the world: quantum materials.

Her first obstacle was integrating into a new country halfway through a school year; when she arrived in Australia from her native India in 2014 and, due to the different start dates for academic years, she had to repeat Year 10: “That really upset me!” she exclaims.

Then there was the culture shock: differences in food, transport, accents, lifestyles, and terminology. This was disorienting enough, but it was also coupled with being away from her tight circle of friends and having to make new ones – while also trying to adapt to an unfamiliar academic regime in Years 11 and 12 that relied on essays rather than a battery of intense exams.

“My teachers were really supportive, but learning to write essays well, and the social side – having no common background with friends or common things in your childhood – that was all really hard.” Ritika credits her love of maths with saving her: “Since childhood, I’ve always been interested in puzzles and LEGO; and to me, maths is just that – puzzles.”

After graduating high school, her father – an economics PhD – suggested Ritika consider science, leading to an applied physics degree at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “When people think of maths, they usually think of accounting, finance or business. But with physics, you can make discoveries and actually help change the world. What attracts me to physics is the research and the promise it holds for the future. There’s obviously maths in it, but the physics is just cool.”

Ritika Bazzad, Sydney Quantum Academy PhD scholarship recipient at UTS.

Then she heard about Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA), a partnership between four universities – Macquarie University, University of Sydney, UNSW and UTS – backed by the NSW Government. SQA provides scholarships, career development and a thriving local community of young researchers. While she missed out on a paid scholarship, she did qualify for a PhD Experience Scholarship, with access to career development and entry to the SQA PhD Experience program.

SQA’s unique PhD Experience program allows students to pick up technical expertise, leadership, and other transferable skills by taking part in the same seminars, workshops, and coursework as those on scholarships with a stipend. And they get to experience the cutting edge of quantum science and technology from both a theory as well as a practical perspective.

Ritika’s research – in the Quantum Materials and Photonics Team at UTS under Professor Igor Aharonovich – is focused on nanomaterials, artificial structures just billionths of a metre in size; at that scale, matter displays quantum effects that can be manipulated. She is experimenting with hexagonal boron nitride (or hBN) crystals so they can better emit single photons (or particles of light). If it can be perfected, it could lead to semiconductor chips just one atom thick, opening the door to advanced 2D quantum state engineering.

“My research is optimising hBN growth conditions, so these emitters are more stable but still very bright,” she enthuses. “I think it’s really important and has a lot of scope for the future if we get it right.”

Ritika enjoys the networking across universities and industry that SQA provides, and is an active member of the SQA Student Committee. “SQA has been really cool. It feels like a family… that’s the thing that keeps you going and keeps you motivated, and you feel like you are not alone. We’re organising online events and talks, which is really fun. I think that’s what kept me going through the pandemic.”