Meet our January STEM Star, Shruti Sharma! A current PhD Candidate in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, she has a background in materials science. We sat down to talk with her about the current state of physics, her work and how you can learn more about this field!
1. When did your interest in physics first start?
While in school, I liked the social sciences as well as the sciences. I remember when I first took physics, it was immensely challenging and I enjoyed pushing myself in a field that didn’t seem to come naturally. I also like how physics could be applied to everyday life; in particular, it seemed rather romantic to be able crack the mysteries of world via the first principles. As someone who has a huge heart for the humanities, I would like to use the logic I’ve developed within physics to tackle some of the toughest problems facing humanity.
2. Could you give us an overview of your current work in physics?
I’m working in the laboratory of Professor Sir Richard Friend, and investigating the field of Quantum Optics. I use ultra fast spectroscopy to measure quantum effects in materials. My current project is trying to understand the process of singlet fission by using self-assembly to selectively stack organic molecules. In essence, it is a blue skies research project that will get to the roots of the intricate molecular processes in singlet fission so we can better inform designs for solar cells, LEDs, and other energy efficient devices.
3. What is your typical day like?
I like to mix up the amount of time I spend on experiments and writing. I go into the laboratory for my experiments to use the optics and laser, and while I’m writing and researching new methods, I tend to be in the library within college. The library at Pembroke College is a pleasant place to study, and I like being surrounded by books in literature, philosophy, music, and the arts. Cambridge is a unique environment to purse a PhD, where in addition to being part of the physics department, you are part of a college that provides for your personal well being and social welfare.
I balance the PhD while pursuing three sports for the university: ballet, equestrian, and lacrosse; as well as being involved with the art history and Cambridge Union communities. So, my typical day isn’t very typical, but I really appreciate the spontaneity and the access to several departments and societies.
4. What areas of physics or current research projects interest you most?
I am most interested in quantum matter and spin physics. Researching the fundamentals of the field intrigues me, and I like to use lasers and complex optics as my tools.
5. Can you describe a physics project you are most proud to have contributed?
The physics project I am most proud to have contributed to is the one I’m currently working on because I think it could really provide clarity on the physics that gives rise to singlet fission. In my first year, I was trained in quantum dot synthesis. These nanocrystals could be used further down the line to trap triplets from singlet fission as a high-emitting light source. Having more efficient energy capture into nanocrystals would allow for enhanced LEDs and displays, thereby providing 24hr, “clean” lighting in rural areas.
6. What are some common misconceptions you think people typically have about physics?
It’s true that higher education within Physics is currently a male-dominated environment. However, it is a misconception that women do not have the mental fortitude to excel in the field. Everyone works at different time scales, and a supportive environment is key for encouraging everyone to understand and apply the complex mathematics in the field. I often find myself in a room where I am the only female. But I think it’s important to realize that there is a shift occurring in the gender demographics, and it is important for one to be true to themselves even if they feel like an outlier. A woman entering the field may not feel immediately respected and she may question her identity in the field, but her contribution to the field is invaluable and being part of the initial wave is impactful.
7. How can kids who have an interest in physics learn more about the field?
Reach out! I think academics at a local university would love being approached about their work, and all would be happy to receive inquiries from future students of the field. Within high school, I was really fortunate to work with Professor David Case, in computational chemistry, which helped lead me towards future scientific pursuits. There are many organizations within “STEM” that want to inspire the next generation. I also think reading is very important, and having a fearless thirst for knowledge. Science and Nature tend to have a general science communication piece that could be a good place to start.