To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke to 2019 Westpac Research Fellow Associate Professor Jacq Romero about her career as an experimental quantum physicist and her advice for the next generation of women scientists.
As an experimental quantum physicist at the University of Queensland (UQ), Associate Professor Jacq Romero’s days are spent playing with particles of light, called photons, and exploring how they could be used to ensure communications systems will be as secure as quantum physics allows them to be.
She is also a woman and mother to three children, facts which make her a rare find in the world of physics which is often dominated by men.
“I've been really fascinated with photons for a long time,” says Jacq, a 2019 Westpac Research Fellow and recipient of many career awards and grants, including The L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellowship in 2017.
Photons are good for quantum communication because they travel at the speed of light, they exhibit quantum behaviours at room temperature and have many other properties to explore, making them a rich system to encode information.
“Quantum communications will allow a way of communicating where you could actually detect when there is somebody listening in, because the quantum information will get destroyed in some way,” she says.
“That's actually what we mean when we say it’s ‘hacker-proof’. It’s not that it can’t be hacked. It’s that, when it’s hacked, you’ll know as it’s happening.”
The “secret power” of physics
“I was 15 years old when I knew I wanted to be a physicist,” says Jacq. “I really liked algebra and those word problems where you had to find the unknown. What fascinated me is that, because I knew algebra, I could turn an English sentence into an equation and I could solve it because I’d made a recipe."
Jacq describes physics as “a secret power” that makes the world a beautiful playground.
“When you understand the rules of physics the world becomes more exciting. You can watch raindrops falling on the swimming pool and find beauty in understanding the ripples on the surface.”
So, what does a day in the life of a quantum physicist look like?
Earlier in her career, Jacq spent most of her days “playing” in the lab. Now she supervises PhD students and teaches at the University of Queensland.
“My goal now is more and more about training younger scientists,” she says.
“There's a lot of tacit learning that happens when you work in the lab, especially when you do experiments. There are a lot of things that I think we do not articulate when we do science, and it's really up to us to ensure that knowledge gets passed on.”
Diversity and inclusivity in STEM aka where are the women?
“There is a lack of diversity in the role models that we have for physics, especially physics taught in school,” says Jacq.
“We talk about Newton, Einstein and Schrodinger, but we don't talk about the women in physics. They're all men. And I'm not taking anything away from them. They've done really great things. It's just that implicit association that sticks, even if you don't realise it.”
Jacq completed her undergraduate and masters’ degrees in the Philippines, where roughly half of people in STEM-related careers identify as female. In Australia, females account for around one third of those in STEM.
“It was only when I moved to the UK and here in Australia that I noticed that the higher degree course students are mostly men,” she says.
“When I won one of four L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellowships in 2017, it was my first experience of people interviewing me. People began to notice that I am doing very well, yet I am a woman and I have a family. At first, I thought ‘what’s the fuss about?’ But the more I thought about it the more I realised we have a problem here. For me, that was a big wake up call.”
There is some good news for Australian women in STEM. In September 2022, the Australian Government’s STEM Equity Monitor updated its data on women and girls’ participation in STEM fields. It revealed that the number of women enrolling in university STEM courses increased by 24% between 2015 and 2020, and that the proportion of women in STEM-qualified occupations increased by 2% from 2020 to 2021 (but only to 15% of total workers).
There is still a long way to go to achieve equal engagement and opportunity in STEM in Australia.
“What I hope for the future generation will be a world where no one would care about your gender in STEM because it's just normal for anyone, regardless of gender, to contribute,” says Jacq. “That's what we should be striving for.”
Jacq is using her platform as a successful quantum physicist to advance the inclusion of women in STEM in Australia and inspire young women to follow their dreams. She visits schools to talk to younger students and is Chair of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee within the School of Mathematics and Physics at UQ.
So, what’s her advice for aspiring young women in STEM?
“Be really good at what you do and have fun,” she says. “Try to ignore any self-consciousness and just aim to do your best. Be so good that it’s undeniable. People will start to pay attention and you’ll make it easier for other people who are different to come into the field as well.
“That’s what I hope I’m doing.”
Westpac Scholars Trust supports women in STEM
Westpac Scholars Trust is proud to support women in science. To date, 60% of our STEM scholarships have been awarded to recipients identifying as women.
“I love the Westpac Scholars Trust because they really take time to select each scholar and they take time to develop you. They really are interested in you as a whole person, and that’s very important for me,” says Jacq.
“Winning the 2019 Westpac Research Fellowship has made me a lot more confident,” she says. “I was very soft spoken when I was growing up. Now, I’ve found that I have a voice and I can insist on being heard. Being a Westpac Fellow has been empowering like that.”
Westpac Scholars Trust invests in a new generation of leaders and changemakers in Australia by offering 100 scholarships each year under five different categories, including Young Technologists.
“Just being part of the Westpac network has already been super helpful for me,” says Jacq. “I have a new group of like-minded people who want to make the world a better place, and who I can go to if I need advice. It feels like a family to me.”
- Westpac Scholars’ Young Technologists Scholarship information
- Westpac Scholars Research Fellowship information
- Students, check out Jacq’s collection of free articles with Futurum
- Listen to the 2021 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellows share their stories with female students through the Girls in Science program across two episodes of Sarah Davidson's Seize the Yay Podcast
- For collections of other online resources for young women in STEM
Written by Leanne Tomkins