10 Questions with Gabriela Barreto Lemos
Gabriela Barreto Lemos, 33, from Brazil is a Postdoc at the Institute for quantum optics and quantum information (IQOQI) in Vienna, Austria.
She is working on quantum optics and quantum information experiments.
Gabriela is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which is dedicated to the field of physics in 2016.
Enjoy the interview with Gabriela and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?
I was one of those “why?” children. “Why this? Why that?” I knew I would be some kind of scientist just because I’m so curious, critical, and I always enjoyed mathematics, physics and chemistry at school. When I was 16 I saw a physics (male) professor from a federal university talking about the physics career and I was fascinated by the possibility of studying the cosmos or studying what happens on the scale of atoms or quarks. My best friend’s father, Americo Bernardes, is a physics professor and she (Nadja Bernardes) was sure she wanted to be a physicist. They both certainly influenced me to follow this path. A year later I started studying physics at university with Nadja.
- Who are your role models?
I don’t have specific role models, but rather people who inspire me for their social engagement, their passion or their intellectual talent. The person who first comes to my mind is my MSc thesis supervisor, Prof. Maria Carolina Nemes. She unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago but she continues to inspire me to interrogate the universe and have a critical eye for scientific claims. She was an excellent professor who had a passion for physics like I have never seen before. She would bring us to her house on weekends to work and she would just glow with every new problem we worked on. Her energy came from her curiosity towards quantum physics and particle physics. She taught me to follow my nose and curiosity in doing science, regardless of what others were doing or thought I should do. She taught me to value my own hard work, regardless of other people’s opinions.
Another close person who inspires me is my mother. She is a scientist and I saw how she had to battle against sexism over and over again in order to thrive in her career. She had to face even rather dangerous situations in her research in the mining community, but her passion for her work gave her courage and allowed her to hurdle every obstacle. Her work is extremely relevant to society and today she has a key role in her research field.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
My first important mentor I’ve mentioned above, Maria Carolina Nemes. I had thought of studying astrophysics but soon realized it is not as romantic as I had expected. I went to Agostinho Aurélio Campos, the coordinator of our undergrad course at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, to ask for guidance. He said “Gabriela, you like the big questions. If you haven’t found your call in the massive stars, I think you will find it in the tiniest particles. “ He sent me off to talk to Prof. Nemes, who I’ve mentioned above. We immediately got along extremely well. We shared an enormous enthusiasm for knowledge. She worked at the time in particle physics but had recently been swept off her feet by quantum optics. So I followed her intuition and started working on quantum optics. Those were definitely the most exciting years of my scientific research career. It was pure bliss. I finished my masters under Neme’s supervision and went to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro for my PhD. I worked with Fabricio Toscano on quantum chaos and at the end of my PhD we proposed a very nice experiment to implement quantum chaos in light beams. The professor in charge of the laboratory, Paulo Henrique Souto Ribeiro, suggested that I try to do the experiment myself. Although I had never worked in a photonics laboratory, I took on the challenge. The experiment was a great success. It was the first ever realization of that chaotic system and the first time quantum chaos effects had been observed in images like these.
I believe that my attitude of tackling a project from scratch, and learning whatever is necessary to achieve my goal is why I was granted the prestigious VCQ fellowship under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Anton Zeilinger in 2012. I couldn’t believe when I got the position, it was a dream of mine to work with Prof. Zeilinger. As soon as I arrived in Vienna, I was immediately attracted to a new and exciting quantum imaging project.
I worked in the laboratory with a lovely student, Victoria Borish, who had just finished her undergrad in the USA. We supported each other at work and in our personal lives, as we had both just arrived in Vienna, where we knew no one. This was very fun. The experiment was a success and led even to the filing of two patent applications. After Victoria left Vienna I continued working on a series of other experiments with my colleagues at IQOQI, which I am concluding now.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am both scientifically and esthetically attracted to imaging experiments. Two of the coolest projects I have every worked on were quantum imaging with undetected photons and observing chaos in a beam of light. In both cases because the project led me to constantly challenge my knowledge about light and quantum mechanics. They also led me to reflect on what the nature of quantum theory is and how the theory was developed. I love it when each day I must learn something new in order to understand a counter-intuitive calculation or a lab result. It is boring when the experiment works exactly as you imagined at first!
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
The work I’m most proud of is not necessarily the work that got the most media attention or praise from the community. For me, it’s when I felt that I freely developed an idea from beginning to end, out of curiosity and passion.
- What is a “day in the life” of Gabriela like?
On week days I typically I wake up, eat breakfast, meditate, do some physical exercise, go to the lab, chat with colleagues at lunch time about random topics, discuss physics results/questions with colleagues, go back to the lab, get home rather late from work, have dinner, read and sleep. Not very glamorous is it?
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
That is a difficult and profound question, which I can’t fully answer yet. I’m currently digging into that question in depth. You would have to ask me again in one or two years time.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I am very sociable. Spending quality time with friends and family members whom I love and respect is vital. I’m extremely passionate about all forms of art, which is what gives me energy. Apart from that, what drives me the most is the pursuit of social justice and equal opportunities for all. So in my free time I’m always engaging in something related to one or more of these three themes.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?
It is tough. My advice is to try to keep your head high even when you are convinced that you are not good enough. I recently went to a meeting of women in physics. All women there had similar stories. They all thought that they were not good enough or they were somehow wrong, but when we put all the stories together we clearly see a pattern. By telling each other our stories we realized that we were suffering gender bias often without noticing it, and we were being led to think that WE as individuals were the problem. The real problem is how science is built for men, by men. My biggest advice is that before you assume that there is something wrong with YOU, check if you are not actually receiving constant subtle discriminatory messages.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?
A theory that unites General Relativity with Quantum mechanics. This will be beautiful.
What should be done to increase the number of female profs of physics?
We are faced with gender bias from the day we receive our first doll instead of a train to when we are fighting to get a professorship when the committee is made up of only men. Because gender bias is so commonplace, it is so difficult to recognize. That is why I think that female scientists should share their stories with scientists of all genders. Conferences for women in physics and support groups over the internet are invaluable, but these discussions also need to be present in general scientific conferences, because men should participate in this discussion too. The imbalance between the number of women and men in physics becomes more and more drastic as one advances in the academic career, this points to an inequality of opportunities. Many women in STEM think they don’t suffer gender bias and most men think they don’t practice it, but they do. All male scientists I talk to believe themselves to be gender neutral, but the numbers show that somewhere gender neutrality breaks down, and we need to understand exactly where/when/how it breaks down.
It is more subtle than we think and unless we talk openly about it to scientists of all genders, we cannot change our scenario.
Another extremely important thing is that we must situate this issue in the larger context of representation in science. I see some discussion now about women in physics, but what about black people in physics or people from a humble origin? I see far more women in STEM than I see people with ancestry from a black racial group, for example. Why are we not talking about that? In Physics I see clearly the vast majority of professors are white, male, heterosexual and from a middle or upper class family. When I’m on public transport I see a variety of ethnic groups, cultural and socio-economical backgrounds, gender and sexual orientation, but in my professional environment this variety is simply not present. This indicates the inequality of opportunities I mentioned above.
In summary, having open discussions and creating awareness in scientists of all genders are essential to this representational transformation. Having quotas for women and minorities is very important until we have at least some decent representation in the (STEM) community.
I hope one day we can say that once someone decides to pursue a scientific career in any field, this someone has the same opportunities regardless of their gender, ethnic origin or socio-economical background.
Picture of Gabriela in the dark with the experiment: credit to Pedro Strelkow.
Picture of Gabriela in the white shirt: credit to Lucas Bessel/Revista Isto É.
Picture Gabriela and the cat cutout: credit to Thomas Suchanek and TEDx Vienna.