Quantum leap for women

Asst Prof Ng is fascinated by quantum technologies and wants to see more female physicists (Photo: Wesley Loh)

Quantum technologies, or the use of quantum mechanics to tackle tasks traditionally completed using only classical methods, may baffle some, but theoretical physicist Assistant Professor Ng Hui Khoon from Yale-NUS College (Yale-NUS) and the Centre for Quantum Technologies at NUS has been fascinated by the field since her days as a physics and mathematics undergraduate at Cornell University in the US. A course on quantum information and quantum computation she took in her final year by renowned physicist David Mermin left her intrigued. 

“It was a fascinating topic taught by an inspiring teacher, a wonderful balance of advanced and intriguing physics research which still found good utility in achieving practical computational goals. The topic was also becoming very trendy in the early 2000s and there was a lot of interest in Singapore on the subject, so it seemed like a good field to explore,” said Asst Prof Ng.

After completing her PhD at the California Institute of Technology in 2009, Asst Prof Ng was posted to the Applied Physics Lab of DSO National Laboratories, where she assessed the feasibility of various quantum technologies for defence purposes and participated in outreach activities to get students interested in physics and defence research, before joining Yale-NUS in 2013.

Over the past decade we have certainly become much more aware of the ‘Women in STEM’ issue and we discuss this a lot more...awareness is certainly a necessary step in the right direction.

Her current research focuses on noise in quantum systems. Quantum computers — computers that exploit quantum effects — can complete a computation like factoring of large numbers, in a much shorter time than standard computers. However, quantum systems are also microscopic in nature, and small things are necessarily more sensitive and susceptible to damage by noise. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that the noise does not negate the advantages of going from classical to quantum systems. Asst Prof Ng’s work looks into mitigating these effects of noise.

“As we learn more about what can and cannot be done within the quantum world, we learn to appreciate the beauty in that unseen world, invisible to our naked eye, yet so fundamentally vital to all things,” said Asst Prof Ng, her passion for her work shining through.


Asst Prof Ng tries to be a role model for her female students (Photo: Yale-NUS College)

Asst Prof Ng credits those before her with bringing about greater awareness of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and associated policy changes. “Over the past decade we have certainly become much more aware of the ‘Women in STEM’ issue and we discuss this a lot more. Places like Yale-NUS have active groups organising events and talks on the topic. I cannot tell how much impact these things have — that will probably require us to look back years from now — but awareness is certainly a necessary step in the right direction,” she said.

However, as the signs point to more women entering STEM fields at the undergraduate level, she feels that the main issue lies further down the line. “Statistics show a greater attrition rate for women with STEM careers compared to men. Hence, these days I focus more on providing role models for female students studying physics and guiding graduate students within my research circle in the advancements of their careers,” said Asst Prof Ng.

She advises women in science to pursue their passion, and to remember that passion even in times of difficulty. “Research in science is never easy, for both men and women. Many risks and setbacks can be pre-empted and avoided, but at the end of the day if you don’t do good science, there’s no point.”

This is the fourth installment of a new series by NUS News profiling some of the University’s prominent females making waves in STEM.