Interview with Yvonne Gao

Quantum physicist describes breaking stereotypes about age in science, her venture into the start-up world and how she ultimately chose academia

April 28, 2022
Yvonne Gao
Source: Agency of Science, Technology, and Research, Singapore

Yvonne Gao heads the Quantum Circuits Research and Engineering Workgroup at the National University of Singapore. In 2019, she was named one of the Innovators under 35 in the Asia Pacific by the MIT Technology Review for her work on quantum computers. The following year, she started a National Research Foundation fellowship in Singapore to build modular quantum devices with superconducting circuits.

When and where were you born? How did this shape you?
I was born in China in 1988 and first came to Singapore with my family for my primary education. My mum had a strong opinion that English is essential, so my education was one of the main appeals of Singapore.

What got you interested in physics?
Before I even began studying physics, I got to learn how to solder in my dad’s small electronics workshop. I liked tinkering with things, taking them apart and doing it again. But at the time I didn’t know that was physics: I was eight or 10 years old and thought that physics was pen and paper [and writing] on a whiteboard all the time.

Was there a particular moment when physics clicked for you?
I had a very good physics teacher in school, and he was explaining how waves of different frequencies travel. He was really tall and he said: “If you think about me going through a really muddy patch of grass, I’ll walk at a certain pace because my legs are long, but now imagine I walk with my daughter, who may be able to walk fast steps with her short legs on a road, but on a muddy field, she slows down more.” I still think about that. It really made a lot of these abstract concepts come alive.

Did you always want to be an academic?
A lot of people feel that the PhD is stressful, but for me it was a honeymoon period. I was enjoying doing fun stuff. The job search was stressful, though. I was doing some very serious consideration of whether I wanted to continue in academia. There are a lot of inherent problems, and for a moment I said: “Is it worth it? Do I really have to work myself to this extent?” Fortunately, I had some opportunities to explore the alternatives.

What did you do in the interim?
I worked with a Singapore-based computing start-up for about half a year. I was really happy there and learned a lot. But the experience also reinforced my resolve to come back into academia – I missed the intellectual detours of doing something not for any reason but just because I’m curious about it. In the academic world, there’s a bit of that luxury: “Let’s make something crazy and test it out.” I was missing that. There were some appealing positions in consulting, but I think ultimately the ability to take little detours and work with students won me over.

You hadn’t taught before. How did you pick up the skills?
To be honest, I was confident because I never had problems speaking in front of people. But after the first course I taught, I asked for feedback and the students said that for a significant portion of the course, I was going way too fast. I realised that it’s not just about what I think is interesting and important – a lot of people learn through very detailed mathematical proofs and I was leaving people behind. Perhaps I could have done a bit better, but I think the first time around is always going to be that awakening moment.

What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?
Building my own team in a pretty short time span despite the pandemic. I started out in an empty lab and now I have a very diverse, international team. There are five graduates and six postgraduates and a handful of undergraduates. They have expertise in electrical engineering, physics and computer science. My intention was to foster a diverse team and to encourage diversity in all senses – in sexuality, socio-economic background, gender, everything. Just saying that out loud to candidates meant a lot to them; people who ended up coming appreciated that.

Was it hard convincing the first couple of people to join you before you had a team?
They definitely took a leap of faith, joining someone who’s young and starting a new thing. It’s a bit of a self-selecting process, so it attracts people who want to see something grow from nothing.

You’re young – is your age ever an issue in being taken seriously among colleagues?
A lot of it is stereotypes. My husband is also a scientist, and people will address him as “Dr” and me as “Ms”, assuming that the wife is the plus-one. I make an effort to correct that. It’s a small effort to help people switch from traditional perceptions of what a physicist might look like. There have been times when I felt I should stand up more for myself as a young scientist. I do feel like I need to make a conscious effort to speak up, to be heard.

What has been the greatest challenge in your career so far?
I had to stop a working relationship with a PhD student to initiate a transfer. It was a very difficult decision made after a lot of deliberation. It’s hard to admit the fact that you’re ultimately not a good match. I was afraid I could have delayed their career slightly. It worked out well ultimately, but during the process it was very hard. I’m learning how to avoid this in the future and identify problems earlier.

Where do you see yourself in the future?
One of the biggest things for me is to build a firm foundation here in Singapore and support quantum computing technologies here locally. That’s one of main goals of me coming here. More personally, I want to keep growing my team to the extent where they become the young independent scientists that I am now, to empower these students.

What would you say to them?
The first part is always the hardest. I knew this, but people telling me helped.


2008-11 bachelor’s degree in physics, University of Oxford

2012-18 PhD, Yale University

2018-20 research scientist, Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore

2020- assistant professor, National University of Singapore


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