Celebrating Women in STEM – Alex Moylett

This blogpost is the second in our ‘Women in STEM’ series, examining what it’s like to study and work as a woman in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Dr Alex Moylett is a Quantum Scientist, who joined the Riverlane team following the completion of PhD in May 2020. She shares her experiences of being in the minority in computer science, her thoughts on how to improve gender diversity in STEM, and the importance of allyship in creating a better world.

 

 

 

Hi Alex! Tell me about your role at Riverlane

I’m in the team working on the Deltaflow operating system. We enable quantum algorithms researchers to fully take advantage of the quantum computing stack, not just the quantum computer itself, but all of the resources that surround it as well.

 

What was the path that led you to Riverlane?

When I was finishing my undergrad in computer science, I knew I wanted to go into a PhD. I found out that Bristol was doing a PhD programme on quantum technologies, and somehow, despite not having done any physics since A level, I was offered a position there. Over the course of that PhD I concluded that it’s not only important to think about how we are going to build these large scale quantum computers 20 or 30 years down the line, it’s also important to think about what we can do in the mean-time, what are the near term applications that we can reach. And so that guided my main research direction, which was to look at near term linear optical quantum computing, and in turn that influenced me to apply to Riverlane as a company working on these near-term applications.

 

What made you want to study computer science?

 I can’t really pinpoint a specific moment which inspired me to pursue computer science, it was just something I was always interested in. The main influence I had for it were my parents (my Mum was a Computer Programmer and my Dad a Project Manager). I was inspired by seeing what they could make computers do. Plus, I enjoyed playing video games. That definitely contributed too.

 

What are your proudest achievements so far?

 In terms of my career I was invited to STEM for BRITAIN, a competition where early-career researchers present their work to Members of Parliament. I presented work from my PhD about modelling imperfections in photonic quantum computing.  It was a good chance to talk with Thangam Debbonaire (MP for Bristol West), and I also got to chat with people from various funding bodies and learned societies (EPSRC, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry and others).

In general though, I ran the ultramarathon (45 miles) in March 2020, which would have been impossible without the amazing support of my family who saw me at the last few checkpoints, and members of the local community who set up aid stations all around the course.

 

Is there anyone who has inspired you to pursue a career in science?

There are several I could mention, but one particularly relevant hero of mine is Shafi Goldwasser, a Professor of computer science at MIT. In my undergrad I learned about her contributions to Cryptography and Complexity Theory, particularly Zero-Knowledge Proofs, which are a way of proving to someone that you know the solution to a problem without revealing any information about the solution itself. It was through learning about these ideas, and the creativity in them, that inspired me to pursue a PhD.

 

How do you feel about the gender imbalance in STEM?

As someone who came from a computer science background, it is definitely noticeable. Pretty much from the moment I started studying computing at A Level to the moment I graduated from uni, women were a very clear minority in classes. There was a noticeable lack of female lecturers. In my undergrad we had a cohort of around 60 students, of whom I could probably count on one hand the number of women. I think that there are a mixture of different issues behind that, certainly part of that is getting young women and girls more engaged in the subject, part of it is also changing the attitudes that we see in cohorts of students, and within our kind of industry, there were certainly instances of sexism as well as other forms of discrimination when I was an undergrad.

I think more can and should be done to address the gap, both in terms of encouraging more women to enter science and ensuring that women who are already in science want to remain in it. At best a lack of women means that there often aren’t people you can relate to in a professional space; at worst it makes it harder to push back against actual sexism and misogyny when it does happen.

And while I cannot speak for others, I definitely feel more comfortable being at an event which has strived for diversity. We’re seeing more conferences introducing a code of conduct, so people can be held accountable for certain behaviours, which is a step in the right direction.

It’s easy to notice when you are in the minority, part of it is also that there is a lack of role models. It’s harder to see yourself in a position if you can’t see other people like you that have already achieved it. And it doesn’t need to be a really successful person it just needs to be a visible person. However, with the current push to try and encourage more minority representation in STEM subjects, women in higher roles in computer science find that they have to contribute more and spend a larger amount of their time working on diversity, whereas their male counterparts don’t have to spend that much time on it.

 

So, another suggestion for part of the solution is getting everyone involved, not just the minorities, everyone needs to be on board with improving diversity in STEM.

Allyship is absolutely essential if we are going to get any of this done.

 

How can people be an ally?

One example of an easy thing that a lot of people can do is simply, if you see an example of sexist behaviour, or you see a man talking over a woman, you can call them out on it. Also, everyone can get involved with just openly talking about these issues and raising awareness of them more broadly, but it’s important that allies don’t centre themselves in the discussion. At a higher level, there is room for senior people and execs to start pushing for policy changes within your organisation, to introduce more support for women and other minorities within the company. And once a company is doing that if they can be visible about doing that then that can inspire other companies to also pick up the pace and learn from that as well.

 

Watch Alex present a summary of her work and introduce the importance of inclusivity, as part of the ‘Pride in Photonics’ initiative at the IEEE Photonics Society – here