In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Gaby Slavcheva, co-founder and chief scientific officer (CSO) of Quantopticon Ltd., U.K, and an international leader in theory and modeling of light–matter interactions in quantum-photonic nanostructures.
Slavcheva’s main research achievements to date include pioneering a new SU(N) group-theoretical methodology for modeling ultrafast optical-pulses interactions with quantum systems. She has more than 15 years of teaching experience at U.K. universities, and her research has been presented at over 70 conferences worldwide.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
From a very early age, I was fascinated by the remarkable ability of physics to explain all kinds of phenomena occurring in the world around us. When I was a child, I voraciously read popular science books and watched scientific TV programs to gain an understanding of how the world worked. But what actually pushed me to do science in the end—and in particular, physics—were the numerous conversations I had with my cousin, Tanyo, who was studying physics at university at the time and who brought home interesting physics problems to discuss on a daily basis.
I became truly captivated by the powerful mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics and how it can be applied to describe and predict the world. This fascination with the subject motivated me at the age of 15 to take very challenging and competitive written- and oral-admission exams for the first-ever physics program of the elite Bulgarian National Mathematical High School.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I find quantum optics, with its unconventional and counterintuitive implications, most exciting. My research is at the interface of quantum photonics, condensed matter physics, mathematical physics and scientific computing, with particular focus on quantum theory and modeling of light–matter interactions in nanostructured semiconductor systems. It is particularly interesting for me to put to the test the foundations of quantum mechanics in the description of light–matter interactions. The overarching goal of my research is to accelerate and facilitate the adoption of next-generation Quantum 2.0 photonics technologies, and I am particularly interested in the development of methods for generation and manipulation of exotic quantum states of light, such as Fock states and Fock-state coherent superpositions.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Networking is an extremely important element of your career: it increases visibility of you and your research, and opens up opportunities. Aim to participate in as many conferences, meetings and committees as you can, without hampering your research. I would say the best way to connect with people is either out of genuine interest in their research, or recognition of their leadership qualities.
Also, I always try to encourage kindness in the scientific community—be that scientist who helps others, particularly those who are disadvantaged or marginalized. We need to overhaul the system in this respect, and what better way than from the ground up!
How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?
Leadership is an essential quality that I strongly advise you to develop during your career. It is something that can put you in a very empowering position because it teaches you to be self-reliant, secure in what you know, and confident that you will steer your research in directions that make the most impact. Leadership also involves thinking in original and unconventional ways, and being able to inspire, motivate and mobilize your research team toward a mutual goal. These are all the ingredients of a great scientist, and that is why leadership roles are so important.
Ask a mid- to late-career scientist who you hold in high regard to become your mentor. Their success is testament to their exceptional leadership skills, and being in regular contact with them will help you to pick those up and apply them to your own career.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
My career is unconventional and highly nonlinear. The course that it took was heavily influenced by the harsh and turbulent times of political change in my home country, Bulgaria. After I completed my Master’s degree, I was forced to emigrate to pursue my scientific aspirations. I won several fellowships abroad, which allowed me to continue my research and develop my career.
I was stubbornly persistent and pursued my scientific goals relentlessly. This required a number of sacrifices on my part, including being away from my family and young daughter for long periods of time.
If you want to become a theorist in quantum nonlinear and semiconductor optics, the skills you need to develop are a very strong background in math and physics, skills and experience in numerics and computation using different programming languages, as well as a lot of hard work and persistence!
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
This is a question close to my heart, as it concerns my daughter who is also a young scientist, having followed in my footsteps. She was awarded her Ph.D. in photonics from Imperial College London, U.K., in 2014 and is now working with me at Quantopticon.
Twenty years ago, the academic landscape in the U.K. looked more encouraging than it is now, and I was happy to see her following my example. I was overjoyed that physics appealed to her as it did to me, and I rejoiced that more women from her generation were planning to embark on a career in physics. When I was a postdoc, the number of women in physics in academia was not particularly large, but was definitely increasing. Unfortunately, I am now witnessing the opposite trend. The most disturbing fact is that the number of female students and postdocs is relatively large, but they seldom reach senior positions.
I would encourage young scientists not to despair but to keep their scientific curiosity alive and to pursue their dreams and aspirations. If they have had enough of academia, I would advise them to reach their potential by founding their own company and taking their future into their own hands.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Early on in my life, I was given many odd pieces of advice, such as: “Do not go into physics—it’s not a job for a woman, and you will regret it!”
I chose, however, the difficult but interesting life of a physicist, and do not regret it one bit. The advice I wish I had been given is to communicate more with colleagues and engage in networking. At the time, I was totally consumed by my theoretical studies and, naively, regarded talking to people as a distraction. Now I understand that, had I paid more attention to networking, this would have helped me to progress in my career faster.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
At this point in my career, I am focusing all my attention and efforts on growing my startup company, Quantopticon. At Quantopticon we are developing Quantillion: the world’s first quantum-simulation software for designing, modeling and optimizing quantum-optical components, such as single-photon sources, qubits and other quantum photonics subsystems and devices. These are very exciting times for us as we have just completed our beta-version of Quantillion and are looking for investors to fund our pilot program. Our ultimate goal is to establish Quantopticon as a world leader in this field.