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Meet Laurier’s Quantum Woman: Shohini Ghose

Wilfrid Laurier University’s renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Ghose discusses quantum theory – and the need to attract more women into science.

By SOHINI BHATTACHARYA | MAY 18 2016

On day two of the 2015 Future is Here festival, organized by Smithsonian magazine last May in Washington D.C., the air is abuzz with science. This is where the world’s leading scientists, innovators and researchers gather to showcase cutting-edge inventions promising to change the world as we know it. In short but confident strides, a small woman steps onto the stage with a giant screen behind her and flashes a smile at the audience as she begins to speak.

“When I was a little girl in Delhi, India, I wanted to be a superhero,” says Shohini Ghose, an associate professor of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University. “Who doesn’t? I would dream about fighting crime and saving the world – X-man, Spiderman, Batman, Superman and me! But I couldn’t decide what my superpower would be … until I eventually grew up and I became a quantum physicist.”

Watch Dr. Ghoses’s Future is Here talk:

Dr. Ghose, a 2014 TED Fellow, is a highly decorated theoretical physicist who studies how the laws of quantum physics can be harnessed to transform computation and communication, and to make teleportation a reality. In what might be her greatest achievement yet, and a culmination of a decade of work, Dr. Ghose and her colleagues have made the first ever set of “movies” capturing an individual atom’s range of behaviours on the quantum scale, including the effect of chaos theory on a phenomenon called quantum entanglement.

Entanglement, says Dr. Ghose, is one of the strangest predictions of quantum theory. It’s a phenomenon whereby a pair of atoms that are separated by a distance are connected in unusual and inexplicable, yet predictable, ways. Using an analogy, she says, “if particle A were a spinning coin in Toronto that landed on heads, then we can predict with certainty that particle B, another spinning coin in New York City, would automatically land on tails purely by its entanglement with particle A.”

Dr. Ghose and her team were also able to show quantum tunnelling, where an atom “walks” through a seemingly impenetrable wall – a superpower usually limited to fictional superheroes. “It’s very hard to think of, let alone take an image of, the complete probability of atomic behaviour,” she says. “This is what we did in these movies.”

A woman of South Asian ethnicity who is an internationally celebrated quantum physicist, Dr. Ghose is a bit of an anomaly. The youngest child in a family of four, Dr. Ghose’s parents, successful professionals themselves, always encouraged the aspirations of their children. So, when a teenaged Dr. Ghose showed a precocious curiosity about the universe and wanted to pursue undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics, her parents did not stand in the way. She left India in the early ’90s for Ohio’s Miami University.

A shy undergrad in a foreign land, Dr. Ghose did her best to keep a low profile. “I guess the point was to blend in to my American Midwestern surroundings as much as I could,” she says with a chuckle. Adding to the cultural isolation she experienced was the gender disparity – in physics classes, she was typically the only female student. Professors often addressed the class each day with “Gentlemen…” But Dr. Ghose soldiered on, all the while focusing on her passion for physics. She told herself that as long as she kept her head down and diligently pursued her research, nothing else mattered.

After receiving two bachelor’s degrees, one in mathematics and one in physics, Dr. Ghose moved on to the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque to complete her graduate studies in physics. However, matters came to a head when Dr. Ghose incurred unwanted attention from a male researcher in a lab. With sexual harassment added to the mix, Dr. Ghose found herself disillusioned and home suddenly felt very far away. “I was completely lost at that point,” says Dr. Ghose. “I began hating physics and decided to quit it all completely.”

Fortunately, just as she’d reached a nadir, her eventual PhD supervisor and mentor Ivan Deutsch introduced her to the weird world of quantum physics and got her charged-up again – leading her down the path which would eventually see her referred to as “Quantum Woman” at the Smithsonian’s Future is Here event.

University of Calgary was her next port of call in 2003, where she continued her training in quantum physics as a postdoctoral fellow. Within a short two years she was offered the position of assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2005.

In addition to her quantum pursuits, Dr. Ghose is also founder and director of Wilfrid Laurier’s Centre for Women in Science, or WinS, which seeks to attract women to science and mathematical fields, address the challenges they face and celebrate their accomplishments.

Eden Hennessey, a PhD student at Wilfrid Laurier and an executive member of WinS, says Dr. Ghose “has expanded my network of scientists and researchers to include a diverse group of scholars and activists. She is an influential mentor in my academic and personal life.” Within the first year of joining WinS in 2012, Ms. Hennessey was awarded the first Hypatia Award, given to an outstanding female student to recognize her achievements in science or gender-related issues.

“There are a lot of male egos in physics,” says WinS executive Debbie Chaves. “They want to talk above you. Shohini personifies that image of ‘the other woman’ that you do not see in physics. She has a great ability to communicate by not setting herself apart as a quantum physicist.”

Back in Washington D.C. last spring, before standing up to deliver her speech, Dr. Ghose turns to a reporter and says, “Science is not magic. I feel like we’ve been hiding this big secret. It’s time to share it with the world.”

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