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Anika Aynul: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

Currently exploring the boundaries of quantum information processing, Anika's physics journey has been hugely inspired by her faith. She's determined to challenge the notion that religious beliefs and science are incompatible.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

My work involves investigating attosecond pulse schemes for quantum technology applications. Quantum technology is all about taking advantage of the counter-intuitive properties of quantum particles to build new kinds of technology.

Quantum computers, for example, are predicted to outperform our traditional computers with an exponential speed-up. One of the main barriers in implementing such systems, however, is due to the presence of decoherence mechanisms – the loss of quantum information in the system.

This is where attosecond science could come in! Attosecond science studies extremely short timescales (10^-18s!), for which the usual decoherence mechanisms may not develop. In my PhD, I try to bring these two disciplines together to get useful insights on achieving ultrafast quantum information processing with minimal decoherence effects. 

Anika - Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2022

What drew you to this area of physics? 

It was only when I formally started learning physics in school that I realised what physics was really all about. I always enjoyed maths and when I realised that physics uses maths to describe the mechanisms and processes that underpin this universe, I was captivated. At that point, I knew it was what I wanted to do!

My first exposure to the field of quantum technologies was also during school. I was watching a video where a scientist was explaining the basic mechanics of quantum computers. I was hooked by the fact that using the laws of quantum mechanics to perform computations can initiate the next leap in computational power – especially since I knew that quantum mechanical effects act as a limiting factor for transistors. And yet here is the very reason why this technology is so powerful.

This prompted me to do further reading around the subject. I was still in school at the time but I knew it was what I wanted to study at university. Being able to pursue this passion that started off so early in school is such a privilege.

What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make?

I’m so grateful to have been selected as an ambassador for this scheme. The vision behind the scholarship really resonates with me because it not only highlights your academic merit but acknowledges your background and the hurdles you had to jump over to get to where you are now. I know it would otherwise be considerably harder for me to secure a PhD place due to my background and appearance.

A subconscious bias against diversity that may arise because of the “hassle” of having to meet diverse needs can further limit the chances of someone like me. The fact I can be myself and be assured that my faith-based needs will be respected and that my faith-based drive to pursue this field is appreciated and not seen as an impediment to my scientific work is so comforting to know.

What’s more, because studentships are so competitive, before I learned about this scholarship I knew my chances of securing my dream project might be slim. These thoughts were running through my mind, but my Islamic faith and my family gave me the strength I needed to not give up on my aspirations. My beliefs teach me that whatever path is best for me will unfold despite the odds as long as I work hard and am mindful to stick to my principles. The Quran reminded me that if I can persevere in this regard, Allah will provide for me from sources I could never even imagine!

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

One thing that discouraged me was hearing condescending remarks by certain popular science communicators in some of their talks and interviews. They would imply that religious beliefs make people less effective physicists and pushed this narrative that science leads to atheism.

It made me think – are people like me not welcome in this field? Why isn’t there more representation? A faith-driven passion for pursuing the study of science is not something that’s usually seen in public discourse, which creates a warped image of who a scientist can be and what a scientist looks like.

This clearly has a detrimental effect on widening diversity within physics as it leads people from religious backgrounds to wrongly feel they have to choose between religion and science, that religious knowledge limits intellectuality and that both cannot happen at the same time. But Islamic history tells us otherwise! As a proud Bangladeshi, practising Muslim woman, I defy these stereotypes and my history emboldens me. My religious beliefs are what have defined me as a person and have spurred my interest as a physicist.

What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond?

Persevere! Don’t let setbacks define your worth – they’re an opportunity to further your knowledge and grow as a person. You’ll look back at those moments later on in life and recognise that they shaped the person you are today.

When people look at you, they may have a particular impression of you from the get-go due to preconceived notions. They may have an impression of what you’re capable of and what you’re not and – as a result – may make hurtful comments based on this image in their heads. Don’t let those comments sway you from your goals. Try not to respond – just stay laser focused. Let your work and accomplishments speak for themselves. And never feel the need to dilute your identity and values to break barriers in your pursuit of knowledge.

“Representation and mutual respect are the key to cultivating a creative, thriving research environment and ultimately, making the world a better place for all.”

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

This scholarship is so important because it’s the only scheme I know of that values and celebrates diversity in physics. This, in turn, cultivates an environment in academia that echoes that. We all have different perspectives to bring to the table due to our diverse backgrounds and beliefs. By increasing diversity, we open up a dialogue to better understand one another, our viewpoints and learn from each other – whether it be learning a particular skillset for approaching a physics problem or just exchanging general advice on life.

When we understand each other better, we will respect each other – even when we disagree – and are less likely to stereotype and “otherise” a person based on preconceived notions and biases we all hold. Otherwise, we are all just living in our own echo chambers.

Representation and mutual respect are the key to cultivating a creative, thriving research environment and ultimately, making the world a better place for all.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund?

My primary motivation was to represent a faith-based drive for science, but personal beliefs weren’t explicitly mentioned in the criteria. I was already eligible to apply but was unsure whether to share my honest perspective. After receiving encouragement from my parents and my supervisor, I decided to go ahead and do it.

If you feel under-represented in physics, don’t hesitate to share your story – apply! Everyone has a story to tell. And the fact that you’ve come this far in your physics journey is a testimony to the great potential you have. By plucking up the courage to share your story, you can inspire others with similar backgrounds to you so that they too can rise above their struggles and achieve their goals. This could give them the glimmer of hope they need to pull them out of their moments of darkness.