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Quantum physics, across the world

6 December 2016

A summer internship at Singapore's Centre for Quantum Technologies helped Kate Clements refine her postgraduate plans while also getting to know a new culture.

For several years, I've had vague plans to pursue a career in scientific research. I've known that I want to do a PhD in physics since I started my A-levels, and I enjoyed doing short work placements at universities and research institutions while I was at school and during the first two years of my undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham. However, up to that point, I'd never really specialized in a particular area: I'd tried astrophysics, space physics and medical physics, but I couldn't decide which area suited me best.

Then, in the summer after my second year I was offered an internship at Nottingham designing atom chips: microfabricated devices that use electric and magnetic fields to manipulate cold atoms. The internship got me interested in the field of cold atoms, and after doing my third-year project on the dynamics of a self-sustained quantum oscillator (and really enjoying my quantum physics modules), my decision was made: I wanted to specialize in quantum physics. But that's still a pretty big field, so before I embarked on a PhD, I was keen to gain some more experience working in an actual quantum physics research environment. The logical next step was to look for an internship.

Research opportunity

While searching the Internet for internships in quantum physics, I came across the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT), which describes itself as a centre of excellence dedicated to research in quantum theory and its application to information technologies. I didn't initially notice that it was in Singapore! By the time I did, I had already begun to read up on the theoretical research taking place there, and I had become particularly interested in the work of Berge Englert's group on ultracold dilute gases of neutral atoms.

CQT only gives out internships on a case-by-case basis – there's no formal programme or application process. Instead, they encourage students to contact the principal investigator in their area of interest to enquire directly about possible projects. Thinking it was unlikely I'd get a reply (and even more unlikely I'd actually be offered an internship), I decided to e-mail Englert just in case, to express my interest. To my surprise I received an e-mail back, and after a conversation via Skype it was decided that I'd spend three months in the summer working at CQT on density functional theory in momentum space.

The aim of the research I took part in was to find approximations to the semi-classical particle densities of many-fermion systems. We wanted to find an approximation method that could be generalized to higher-dimensional systems in a straightforward way, unlike earlier work done by another group (R F Ribeiro et al. 2015 Phys. Rev. Lett. 114 050401). As an indicator of whether our approximations were correct, we checked that the Thomas Fermi density (an approximation for the density that vanishes in the classically forbidden region) could be recovered. My research was mostly analytical, with some numerical work using MATLAB to produce density profiles of the many-fermion systems.

I worked closely with a small group of PhD students, research assistants and research fellows, attending group meetings and being treated as an integrated member of their group. One part of my internship I particularly enjoyed was helping to produce an academic poster on the research we'd been doing, and presenting it at a poster session. I also attended talks given by visiting professors and other student interns, and I got to watch several PhD defences (unlike UK vivas, where the only people in the room are the candidate and examiners, PhD defences in Singapore are semi-public). I found the talks not only interesting, but also helpful in broadening my knowledge in lots of different areas of quantum physics.

Cultural experience

Aside from the challenge of fitting into a new workplace, moving to a different continent without knowing a single person is not without its difficulties. I had never spent an extended period of time in Asia before, so I had to adjust to the cultural differences and to a new style of living. It was important to respect the fact that laws are different in Singapore, even though some of them seemed unusual to me. It's illegal to import or chew chewing gum, for example, and one particularly memorable law was the ban on carrying durian, a strong-smelling fruit, on all forms of public transport. In addition to the surprising laws, one difficult thing about adapting to life in Singapore was the climate. Although prone to lots of rain and thunderstorms, the weather in Singapore is always very hot and humid – not something I was accustomed to in the UK! However, though it was challenging to spend the summer working in a new country, it was extremely rewarding. Thanks to my experience in Singapore, I am now very comfortable with immersing myself in new cultures and professional environments.

To anyone considering applying for an internship abroad, my wholehearted advice would be to go for it. Apply even if you think it's unlikely that you'll be accepted, because you might just be surprised. Don't be afraid to e-mail an academic directly and ask if they'd be willing to offer you a work placement; in my experience, it's likely that they'll be pleased by your interest in their research and eager to give you an opportunity to gain some experience. From sending just one e-mail, I was offered an internship on the other side of the globe, in the research group of a scientist who is a world leader in his field. I immensely enjoyed collaborating with physicists from all over the world and contributing to current research into quantum physics. I'd urge anyone looking for research experience to not be put off by internships in other countries, or even at the other side of the world: it's an opportunity you wouldn't want to miss.

Kate Clements is in her final year of the MSci physics programme at the University of Nottingham, UK, e-mail kc2@nottingham.ac.uk