Celebrating Women in STEM – Leonie Mueck
This is the final instalment of our Women in STEM series, where five female scientists and engineers at Riverlane have each shared their stories and perspectives about working at the forefront of quantum technology. Here, Chief Product Officer Leonie Mueck discusses her path into the industry, and why diversity and inclusion should be at the very core of everything we do.
Hi Leonie! Tell me about your role at Riverlane
I am Chief Product Officer, which means I am responsible for Riverlane building something that customers or users actually want! Essentially, I work with the Deltaflow team, building an operating system for quantum computers and collaborating with our quantum hardware partners.
Can you remember when your love for science started and how it led to you into quantum computing?
I don’t remember a particular moment; I was interested in many things at school and debated whether to read humanities or social sciences. But in the end, science prevailed.
I’m a chemist by training. My PhD was in quantum chemistry, where I developed a method for calculating properties of molecules with a very high accuracy. I also learned a lot of quantum physics because the properties of molecules are dependent on the behaviour of electrons. In particular I worked on coupled cluster theory, one specific form of which is now used in quantum computing.
You have previously worked in publishing, how did your career lead you to Riverlane?
During my PhD I became interested in editing, writing and publishing. I discovered that much of science is driven by the incentives set by how we assess the value of scientific work. Publishing plays a big role in that whole system. I was particularly interested in why negative results don’t get published, as they are still useful. If there is no association, it can drive people to find statistically significant results where there are none. It’s a huge problem that’s known in science under buzzwords like ‘p-hacking’.
So my colleague Thomas Jagau and I founded a student led journal called ‘JUnQ’ – ‘Journal of Unsolved Questions’ where you can publish ‘null’ result research. It received a lot of media attention and it was a lot of fun, so from this I really wanted to become an editor and see science through a kind of ‘meta’ lens.
Later on in my career I worked on issues related to open data and open source code in academic publishing. I worked for Nature, which is very interesting place if you have this meta view of science, and I was in charge of quantum computing as a topic. I therefore have a broad understanding of what’s been going on in the industry since 2013. This led to my role at Riverlane, where we’re right in the centre of the quantum ecosystem.
What are your general perspectives on diversity in STEM?
In terms of gender diversity, when I started my undergrad in chemistry there was about 30% of women on the course, so the representation wasn’t awful. If we are talking about other types of diversity, such as race or ethnicity, then that’s pretty dismal.
What do you think could be done to improve the diversity representation in STEM?
If we are talking about gender diversity – ask all the guys!* One of the problems is that not only do women have to rally against gender stereotyping, they are also tasked with solving the diversity issue.
I am on the receiving end of gender stereotyping pretty much daily. Of course, it’s partly down to interpretation and it’s hard to disentangle what is due to gender and what is due to just me and the way I am. It’s easy to conform to certain expected behaviours, and in turn people react a certain way if you do not conform so it becomes this vicious circle.
It gets even worse if you are a woman of colour. It’s bad enough if you are the only woman in the room, but I can only imagine that if you are also the only person of colour in the room – then it becomes a double whammy.
There is very good research that indicates that women are relatively well represented in science and academia up to about post doc level, and then it drops off a cliff. And it is most likely to do with, as far as we know, founding a family, and then the question becomes very private and domestic. It’s a matter of what do we default to in terms of childcare? I’ve encountered these sorts of questions and discussions myself because I have a small child. Obviously, this isn’t just in science, it can be observed in other industries. One problem is that not enough men take big chunks of leave, and that conversations around who takes time off are still really difficult. What I would suggest for organisations particularly is to make parental leave non-gendered. Mothers often have better leave options than fathers, and it becomes an economic question – if only mothers receive decent parental pay for a long time then obviously they will stay at home. So, there are many facets to this issue. And that’s only in a heteronormative setting, not with any additional difficulties of being LGBTQ+ with a child.
There are many organisations out there looking to improve the representation of minorities in science. Many organisations whose purpose is more generally about promoting STEM are also taking an interest, such as the Open-Source non-profit NumFOCUS, where I was recently on the diversity and inclusion committee.
I feel that everyone should take this problem seriously and put diversity and inclusion at the core of what they do rather than seeing it as a nice add-on. It’s something that is very important to me at Riverlane.
What excites you most about the future of quantum computing?
We have all this quantum technology and are finding out the best ways to use it; but there are many obstacles to overcome. As the industry is so emergent, things could fall into place in unexpected ways, but we know it really could change the world. We are hugely excited to be a key player in the quantum ecosystem; our product Deltaflow.OS is set to be installed on every quantum computer in the UK and will vastly improve the performance for near-term quantum computing applications, taking us closer to quantum advantage.
*Following Leonie’s comment, we’re going to interview male staff at Riverlane later in 2020 to get their views.