Case study

Quantum innovation sector lead — Sonali Mohapatra

Ignited by a childhood fascination with space, Sonali completed a PhD in the field. Now, she draws on her journey to illuminate the barriers women face in STEM, while actively paving the way for their success

What does your role entail?

I work at the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC), where I lead on the design and delivery of its innovation strategy. This means we support the discovery of use-cases and the development of applications across a portfolio of sectors.

Working across a range of stakeholders, I feed into our Quantum Readiness programme. Our goal is to provide support for organisations on their 'quantum readiness' journey, helping them to access emerging technologies and platforms, as well as supporting the overall growth of the UK's quantum ecosystem.

Why did you decide on a career in science?

When I was around seven or eight, I used to cut out clippings and images of black holes from newspapers and magazines, using them as part of a pretend 'research project'.

Fast forward to my PhD, and that childhood curiosity had blossomed into a specialised field of study: black holes and quantum gravity. My undergraduate focus in theoretical physics had laid the groundwork for this deep dive.

My postdoctoral career took me to the heart of the space sector in Scotland. There, as a space application lead at Craft Prospect, I spearheaded the development of early-stage quantum and AI (artificial intelligence) tech specifically designed for space applications. Leading talented teams, we focused on creating AI-powered commercial quantum modules for CubeSats, pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

What are you most proud of achieving in your career?

In the past, I have enjoyed working on world-firsts such as two of the first-ever Quantum Key Distribution modules for CubeSats. It's also exciting to work with departments such as government, regulators, and policy makers to support the development of policies and regulations to keep customers and developers safe.

My commitment to the field extends beyond the technical realm. I actively champion inclusivity through organisations like New Voices in Space, which I founded and chaired. Through these efforts, over 200 satellite kits have been delivered to schools across Oxfordshire and Scotland, igniting a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education in young minds.

What are some ways we can encourage more women to enter STEM fields?

A significant gender gap persists in STEM education, with only 35% of girls continuing these subjects beyond GCSE compared to 80% of boys. This highlights the need for targeted efforts to encourage girls' interest in STEM during their teenage years.

 While increased access to online information and video content is a positive step towards closing the gender gap in STEM, it's not enough. We need to address deeper issues that may be discouraging girls from pursuing these fields.

Exam-heavy structures and traditional classroom environments can sometimes overshadow a student's natural aptitude for STEM subjects. Struggling with these assessment formats doesn't equate to a lack of ability.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in STEM?

  • Don't be discouraged by any failures you may face in your academic journey. Academic setbacks are a normal part of the learning process. I struggled with classical physics concepts - mental health issues added an extra layer of difficulty for me, leading to some test failures. Remember, mastering new subjects takes time and perseverance.
  • Make use of resources, such as free STEM content to help understand difficult concepts.
  • You don't need to have figured out your 'niche' very early on - just follow your passion to explore the topics you love the most in the moment, build strong foundations and be open to opportunities.

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