Asian Heritage Month: Kero Lau

May 25, 2022

Hi I’m Kero Lau, an assistant professor at the Department of Physics, and a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information Science working on the boundary of quantum physics and information theory. My main research interest is to analyze the properties of engineered quantum systems, and study how these systems can be realized in applications such as computation, communication, and sensing.  

What inspired you to be a scientist?

I decided to be a physicist when I was pretty young, like high school. I was amazed by the fancy physics like black holes, quantum field, fundamental particles… something that sounds so important yet remote from daily life. That is just cool. At that time, I thought physics doesn’t need much memorizing: once the story is understood, we can derive everything by mathematics.

What do you love the most about your work? What are you proud of? 

I was working on gravitational wave astronomy in my MSc. Unfortunately, around that time my grandmother was very sick in the hospital. When I saw she was suffering, I failed to justify how my studies could help relieve her pain. That was the reason I switched to quantum technology when I did my PhD. I need a motivation apart from pure interest to push me forward, and the motivation is that this new technology could potentially bring benefits to people.

The area of quantum technology is new (roughly 20-30 years), so there are still many details that are not fully understood and new technologies emerge quite often. Theorists are not restricted by infrastructure, so we have huge degree of freedom to study the questions we are interested in. Such flexibility encourages us to ask crazy questions or take ridiculous approaches. I believe having crazy ideas and verifying them carefully is the way to drive science forward. 

What kinds of barriers have you faced in your work or studies? 

As a physicist, I think the most significant barrier we face is the so-called Barrier of Physics. It means that nature has its own rules that we cannot violate, no matter how smart we are. We frequently get new ideas, and some of them could be very exciting, but after analyzing them in detail, it is very common that the ideas simply don’t work. In the early stage of my career, I was pretty frustrated about that. Now I have more experience, I’ve learned that a failed idea is usually not the end of the world.

Another barrier is communication. As a physicist it is very important to keep myself updated about the recent developments in the field. Unfortunately, the readability of papers varies a lot, even for those published in reputable journals by renowned research groups. I believe the main purpose of publications is to communicate and inspire new ideas. I wish researchers spent more time writing papers that are easier for the community to understand, in particular junior researchers like students.

Are the barriers higher for Asian scientists? 

Sure, some of them are. According to my experience interacting with students and classmates in Asia and Western countries, their focuses on physics are very different. Asian students usually focus on calculations, while Western students are more keen on intuitions. Such difference, according to my own experience, is due to the different goals of education since their very young age. In my area of research creativity is very important. Sometimes I see my Asian students be blinded by the mathematical results while ignoring the story behind them. It can take some effort and training to help them embrace the creativity-oriented way of research.

What suggestions do you have for making the Faculty of Science a more inclusive space?

Space. To create a more inclusive space, a good way is to encourage people to chat more, and for people to chat casually and relaxedly we need space. I would imagine compartments with free-to-use blackboards, soft couch, and warm (in terms of temperature) atmosphere would be idea places for students/researchers to discuss physics.

Also, currently the information about events like colloquiums, seminars and workshops seldom go outside a department. In the modern age boundaries between disciplines have been blurred, some events could be interesting to people in other departments. For example, quantum is related to physics, math, chemistry, computer science. If FoS can have a more centralized place to announce events from all departments, that would be useful.

Finally, if the FoS can organize some gatherings to celebrate the festivals of different cultures like Lunar new year and Ramadan, that would be fun and make Asian students feel welcome. A large room booked with coffee, tea, and traditional snack served would be sufficient. The purpose is to get people together to have fun and learn the traditions of other cultures.