My name is Steve Campbell, I am a theoretical physicist at University College Dublin and I work on all things quantum-y. This means I spend lots of my time thinking about how the smallest bits of the universe (single atoms and electrons) talk to each other and try to make sense of why at this scale our best theory predicts some weird stuff, like cats that are alive and dead at the same time!
Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls and minorities to study STEM and pursue STEM careers?
It’s improving, but we still have a long way to go. Physics is notoriously male dominated and it’s going to take an effort at all levels to address this. Schemes like the JUNO and Athena Swan are making a difference and at UCD there’s some great activities promoting Women in STEM. Ultimately though this will continue to be a problem if women and minorities aren’t encouraged in school to take up STEM subjects. If we want to see a diverse and balanced STEM workforce in 10 years we need today’s teens taking up the call now.
Describe an interesting day in your current position.
I get to travel quite a lot, either for presenting at conferences, lecturing at schools, or visiting collaborators. It’s one of the joys of being a theorist – my “lab” is my laptop, and so these trips are always interesting. But beyond the fun of seeing the world, the absolute best days are when you crack a problem you’ve been working on for months. It happens maybe once or twice a year that some calculation or discussion lets you suddenly get to the heart of what you’ve been working on. While the problem likely is of interest to only the small number of other physicists working on the topic – I love the buzz that comes from knowing I’ve unlocked just a little more understanding of quantum mechanics.
What do you love about your current role?
The freedom to work on whatever interests me. Academics have always enjoyed “intellectual freedom” – the idea is that we, as scientists, are people best able to decide which are the important questions to explore and so should be allowed to do it without (too much) interference.
What has been the most surprising element of your job?
That I am capable of doing it! “Imposter syndrome” (the feeling that you’ve fluked your way through and will be found out any second) is pretty common in academia. In the early parts of my career I often thought that everyone else around me knew what they were doing so much better than I did. But as the years have passed I’ve learned to silence that voice a little and in doing so have been very surprised at how well I do my job.
What has been your most exciting career moment to date?
I was an invited speaker at the American Physical Society March meeting a few years ago. This is probably the largest gathering of physicists in the world, around 10,000+ annually descend on a major American city each year. I was given a speaking slot with some of the most influential scientists in my field (one of the other guys has an equation named after him!) I had an audience of a few hundred listening to my most recent results and it was exhilarating!
Do you get to work with any new technologies?
Absolutely, although not on a day to day basis. Most of my work happens on my computer or, if we’re getting really back to basics, in a room with some colleagues and a black board. One thing arising from my field is elementary “cloud based quantum computers”. IBM for instance have made a small quantum computer available that we get to program and play with remotely. It’s not very powerful – at 16 qubits it’s closer to an abacus than a playstation – but we can still do some cool stuff like quantum teleportation on it.
Do you ever get to travel abroad for work?
Regularly. I’ve lived in Ireland, UK, Italy, and Japan in the last 10 years and I’ve visited many other places: USA, Morocco, Finland, Singapore, the list goes on! As undeniably wonderful as this is, I have recently been thinking about my personal environmental footprint. Scientists are surprisingly social animals – and I believe the in-person exchange of ideas is really the best way for science to progress. So now I’m looking to find the right balance.
Do you feel that you fit the stereotypical description of a person in your role?
Personality, yes; visually, less so. I’m a little bit obsessive when it comes to solving problems and finding patterns or explanations for things. I think these traits are fairly typical in physicists. But I also love, and have, tattoos and I’ve played in heavy metal bands which is less common (but definitely not unheard-of) in university lecturers.
If a young person told you that they would like to get into your role, what advice would you give them?
Love your subject. Teaching something that you are passionate for is infectious and when I am excited about a topic, I find it rubs off on my students. From the research side, I will normally work on several small projects that fit within a wider research theme for several years at a time. So for both of the major aspects of the job of a university lecturer, you’ve got to have an innate passion and interest for the subject.
What are your priorities for the year ahead in your role?
My students and research staff. I have three students and one “early career” researcher working in my team and my absolute top priority is making sure that things are going well for them. This means making sure the research is progressing (even slowly) and also encouraging them to plan for their futures. I’m also teaching some new courses and this means lots of lecture material needs to be prepared.
Do you feel secure in the fact that you can earn a living from a career in Stem?
Absolutely – STEM remains a fairly safe way of securing a career. I did a Maths degree at Queen’s University in Belfast and the range of jobs that my friends went onto is impressive (finance, teaching, government advisory, research, accountancy…). I suspect one of the main reasons for this is that, in addition to the technical training that this sort of degree provides, STEM subjects all, in general, involve problem solving and this goes doubly when you do a Masters/PhD in STEM. Being highly skilled at solving problems is a very employable trait!
Name one thing on your bucket list.
To see the milky way in the night sky.
What television series are you currently watching?
Ink Master – it’s a reality TV show where tattoo artists do real tattoo’s on willing people and then whoever was worst gets sent home.