Friday profile: Learning light’s alphabet

When she finds time to chat to me, Dr Jacq Romero is at L’Oreal headquarters in Melbourne, celebrating her recent 2017 Women in Science fellowship award – with her 19-month-old son in tow.

Romero, a quantum physicist, was among five recipients of the fellowship, which includes funding support for future research. 

As well as using it to boost her research, she is determined to use her new fame to spread a message to young women that it’s possible to balance family life with a career in science.

“I see the fellowship as an excellent opportunity to bring out the story that mothers can succeed in science,” she says. “It’s important for young girls to see that there are women who can succeed in the face of caring responsibilities – because men have been doing it for all of time.”

The trick to this balance, she tells me, is making sure she is fully present in whatever environment she’s in – whether she’s at work, or at home with her family. Of course, a supportive partner is key: “It’s really important for women to have partners that do half the household chores and childcare,” she adds.

Romero describes hers as a male-dominated field, but confesses she has been hooked on quantum physics since the age of 16, when she encountered it at the science high school she attended in the Philippines.

“I was a geek from a very young age – I learned algebra when I was 8 years old,” she says. “[In high school] we were bombarded with science courses and I loved them all, but physics was my favourite.”

Refreshingly, when Jacq Romero describes the complex concepts behind quantum physics, she often punctuates her explanations with laughter. This is a welcome trait; the joy in her work somehow lightens the load. 

“I love quantum physics because when you think about all its philosophical implications, it really is crazy,” she says (cue laughter). “You have heard of Shroedinger’s cat, who is both dead and alive; or an electron that is both here and there; these things are against what we perceive of our world. It’s so counter-intuitive!”

Romero’s research is centered more in the fundamental aspects of physics: specifically, the quantum information encoding in the different shapes light can take. 

“If you think of a laser beam, it’s usually a bright spot in the middle, but then you can also have different shapes of light,” Romero explains. “Once you shape the light, you introduce higher dimensions … It’s like having an alphabet where you can have as many letters as you want.”

After completing her Masters in the Philippines, Romero and her husband moved to Scotland, where she completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow and had two of her children (“My kids had Scottish accents,” she tells me, laughing). 

The research that would eventually bring her to Australia, however, centered on causality – specifically, the idea that cause and effect don’t necessarily have to occur in that order.

“My project right now is showing that you can have two events, A and B, and an experiment where the statements ‘A before B’ and ‘B before A’ are both true. 

“It’s like having two questions, and an experiment where you can ask both questions at the same time.”

When I tell Romero many people would struggle to make sense of this concept, she passes on a nugget of wisdom. 

“When you think about quantum physics, it’s the letting go which is the most important thing,” she says.

“If you’re ready to let go of what you perceive, then quantum physics will be easier to digest. There’s a whole lot more to the universe than what we can see, and I think that’s very exciting.” 

Accompanied by laughter, it all starts to sound like a bit of fun.

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