In August 2018 CQC²T’s Dr Rose Ahlefeldt was awarded the prestigious role of 2018 ACT Scientist of the Year. Over the next 12 months Dr Ahlefeldt from ANU, aimed to use the platform to reach out to school students, inspire girls to pursue a career in science and raise the public perception of what it means to be a scientist.

Dr Ahlefeldt shares the highlights from her year as ACT Scientist of the Year and some insight into what has inspired her career in science.

What did you set out to achieve in your role as ACT Scientist of the Year?

I aimed to use it to reach out to, particularly, school students, and talk to them about the value of science and what it is actually like as a career, because I think even today the public perception of scientists is quite narrow. I think it is really valuable for students to see someone a bit like them, someone they can talk to, in a career they might be interested in. It’s particularly important, I think, for young women, who are not perhaps so much encouraged as boys to go into technical careers.  I say this, too, as someone who didn’t really have that growing up – I grew up in regional NSW, in Armidale, and there were pretty limited opportunities to learn what science is like – our town doesn’t even have a museum, and I didn’t go to one until I went to uni. And so, choosing what degree I would study I was largely stabbing in the dark in picking science. So, I think it is really important for kids to see themselves in science careers, because then you can start to work towards getting there.

What did the role enable you to do? 

Through the role I was able to talk to a cross section of school students and their parents, from kids in year five to year 11 students attending the National Youth Science forum. I talked about the science hiding in their daily lives – about rainbows and how they form, why fluoro colours are so bright, and how setting random chemicals on fire taught us what the sun was made of. To the older kids, I explained how this science – spectroscopy – helped us develop the quantum model of the atom, and how we use that model now for quantum computing. It was great to see the students make this connection between things they know, and the research we are doing in the Centre at the moment. I also gave talks and participated in panels for girls interested in science, talking about my path into a science career. I really valued these as a chance to show girls that these careers are there for them.

What was your highlight of the year?

I gave a talk to some year 9 and 10 students about spectroscopy and quantum computing. They were all very quiet, polite and attentive during the talk – then in the question time they absolutely grilled me about quantum computing. They asked when will we have quantum computers? how much will they cost? are they cost-effective? what do qubits actually look like? what are the engineering challenges? what are the error rates and are those a problem? and so on. It was great to see students so engaged and interested, and I was able to give them a more nuanced picture of quantum computing technology and its challenges than is normally presented in popular science writing.

Where do you think you made the biggest impact?

I gave a talk at a professional development day for high school teachers – about 300 teachers from around the ACT. I talked not only about my research, but how the support of some teachers at my country public school really helped pushed me towards science as a career.  It was fantastic to see the enthusiasm these teachers had for hearing about research, and not just the science teachers – I later heard from a colleague that they had overheard two English teachers having a very animated discussion about qubits and the future of quantum computing! I got so much great feedback on this talk – many teachers came up to while I was out and about in Canberra in the months that followed, and it made me realise that reaching out to teachers is a great way of getting discussions about our research into schools, and it is teachers who have the biggest impact on kid’s ideas about their further education.

What do you do in your role as a Research Fellow at CQC²T?

Within CQC²T, I study rare earth crystals for quantum information applications, particularly quantum memories and other quantum network components. The Centre is pursuing rare earth crystals as our quantum information platform because rare earth ions have excellent coherent properties along with high atom densities that mean strong light-matter interactions, and as a solid-state platform there are good prospects for integrating them with photonic chip technology to make complex, robust quantum devices. But there is still a lot of research to understand the materials and the way the rare earth atoms interact with light and each other, so we can optimise the performance of rare-earth-based quantum devices. I focus on studying rare earth interactions and characterising novel rare earth materials for diverse quantum network applications: at the moment, I’m looking at crystals for quantum memories, for linear optical processing, and as microwave-to-optical single photon frequency converters.

What are your latest research results focused on?

We’ve just had a paper accepted* on using a rare earth crystal to make a multimode quantum memory with the ability to do some linear gate operations on the stored qubit states.  To achieve this, we use doping to create an ensemble of identical quantum computing “molecules” within the crystal. We can store multiple memory qubits in the spins of the “molecule” and use the interactions between them for linear gates while the quantum information is completely stored on the spin states. This is useful for linear optics implementations like quantum repeaters which contain memories as well as components like beamsplitters or phase shifters that enact linear gates. These components can, in our crystals, be incorporated into the crystal itself, making a linear circuit that is reconfigurable and more efficient than one made of multiple discrete components.

* R. L. Ahlefeldt, M. J. Pearce, M. R. Hush, and M. J. Sellars, Physical Review A 101, 012309 (2020).

Dr Rose Ahlefeldt is a Research Fellow at the ANU node of CQC2T based in Canberra. Dr Ahlefeldt is part of the Rare Earth Integration Program where she is working to develop quantum information devices using rare earth ions in crystals.