Celebrating Women in STEM – Ophelia Crawford
It’s a sad fact that women have always been underrepresented in STEM subjects. According to stemwomen.co.uk, women made up only 26% of total graduates of core STEM subjects in the UK in 2018. In the same year, women represented only 22% of the STEM workforce, with the lowest proportions in Computer Science, Engineering and Technology.
One of our core goals at Riverlane is to promote diversity and encourage more under-represented groups, including women, to apply for our roles. Over the next five weeks we will be shining a light on our five inspirational women in STEM – hearing about their experience of studying and working in the field as part of a female minority, and what could be done to encourage a more balanced workforce.
First off the mark is Dr Ophelia Crawford, a Quantum Scientist, who joined Riverlane in the early days of the company back in August 2018. She discusses her career path into quantum software, studying in an all-female college, and the importance of having a supportive network.
Hi Ophelia! Tell me about your role at Riverlane
As a Quantum Scientist, I mostly work on developing new methods to reduce the quantum resources required to perform calculations. As part of this, I work with external customers to help them understand how to run circuits on their particular device. What I love most is working through problems with a pen and paper and writing bits of code to test ideas. I’m also involved in the recruitment at Riverlane, particularly for the internship scheme, which I really enjoy, and I have done a number of interviews – it’s nice to have a mix.
Physics is your background and you studied geophysics for your PhD. When did your love for science start?
Maths has been one of my favourite subjects since primary school – I enjoy logically working through problems from start to finish. My interest in science developed a little later. I remember finding the periodic table really interesting — I liked the structure of how it was all laid out and how it could explain the properties of different elements. Physics seemed like the perfect way to combine maths with understanding the world around us.
How did you come to be working at Riverlane?
My PhD was in computational and theoretical geophysics, developing methods for using measurements of sea level change over glacial timescales to learn about the Earth’s structure and its past climate. Whilst I really enjoyed my PhD, I realised that academia wasn’t for me and so was looking for other analytical jobs. I saw an advert for the role at Riverlane, and it really appealed to me – I hadn’t previously considered the possibility of being able to do physics research outside an academic environment. I knew very little about quantum information before I arrived, but have been able to transfer other knowledge and skills. I’m greatly enjoying learning about a new branch of physics!
You went to an all-female college (Newnham College, Cambridge) to do your undergraduate degree, was that a conscious choice?
I didn’t apply there — I actually consciously didn’t want to go to an all-women’s college, but I’m extremely glad I did. It provided a welcome contrast to male-dominated physics lectures, and it also meant I was taught by more female researchers than students at many other colleges. Newnham is very friendly, with pretty, late 19th century buildings. Being a little out of the centre made it super peaceful and it felt like a home.
Is there anyone who has particularly inspired you or influenced you at all?
What is most important for me, rather than a role model, is being in a supportive environment — even your family or teachers at school providing encouragement. Having someone, not necessarily to look up to, but who is ‘on your team’, has had the biggest impact for me.
Does more need to be done to encourage women into science?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have always had a very supportive environment. At Riverlane, I personally find everyone is really encouraging of each other and that makes a huge difference.
In terms of improving the numbers, I guess there are two things to think about. One is trying to make sure girls aren’t put off at school age, and the other is to keep women in science, and to make sure they feel supported to continue. We can all do our bit there, even just by creating a welcoming and understanding workplace.
Quantum computing and related fields seem to be pretty imbalanced; I particularly notice the disparity at conferences. It can be quite disappointing to see how few female speakers there are. Having said that, I know there are many people working to improve diversity in the field, and great initiatives such as the Q-TURN conference are making positive strides to improve equity and inclusion in quantum science.
There is also, of course, much more to diversity than gender alone, and an intersectional approach is clearly important. I have been very fortunate and privileged in a number of ways.
What has been your proudest achievement so far?
Speaking broadly, I think both getting and doing this job! It was quite a step into the unknown for me. I know that I’ve learnt a lot in the last two years, and I hope that I’ve made some useful contributions!
What are your career goals for the future?
A few years ago, I could never have imagined that I would be working in quantum computing (I didn’t know such companies existed!), so who knows what’s next. Being able to do physics research in a company setting seems like the best of both worlds to me, so I hope I can continue to do something similar.