I have this blurry memory of a YouTube video. A few people were walking around a hotel lobby, and every so often, one of them would disappear and reappear in another place. To show that quantum mechanics cannot predict the exact location of a particle in space, but only the probability of finding it at different locations.  

I must have been about 15 then. But that captured my imagination. I think that’s where it all started.

Choosing Physics was difficult because I always loved Mathematics and Chemistry too. So I studied all three subjects for my undergraduate studies. And there, I had this teacher who used to teach us the subject ‘Quantum Physics’, Raman Chaddha. I really liked her and went to her one day and asked - How can I do a PhD in Quantum Physics?  She told me that you can’t do a Ph.D. in Quantum mechanics per se, but all physics research fields use quantum mechanics principles.

The thing is, I had to learn everything for myself on how to pursue a research career. My parents and brother are from finance and accounting backgrounds. I was looking around and trying to find a path for myself that they couldn’t give an opinion on. I was like - not everyone should go into banking!

My favourite poem is ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost. My life is just like that: the road less travelled.

Growing up, I was raised in a very protective environment at home. So when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. outside of India, my parents were quite worried - but at the same time wanted me to have the best of opportunities.

When I was younger, I was quite an introverted person. I had to learn to speak out - for example, in a lab, when you’re struggling with something, you should say so. That way, other people can help you. But personally, that took considerable strength for me.

And being a woman - in some places, it feels like you have to prove yourself 20 to 30% more to be taken as seriously. At UQ, it’s much better - I think everyone’s opinion is valued.

During my Masters, only 25% of my classmates were female. And then during my Ph.D., I worked in a research collaboration of 20 members with only four women. During my postdoc, only 15% of the students in a group of 28 were female.  So, I do think it’s high time we did more to promote women in physics research.

Parul Aggarwal

At UQ, we take sole responsibility for our sub-systems - so communication is now a big part of what I do. In an industrial setting, where you are working with people from different fields, you have to be able to talk to people with different backgrounds: software, mechanical, electronics, and so on. We’re sharing usage specifications and requirements so that when the system’s up and running, everything works together. It’s different from academia - you can’t use the technical jargon.

My management skills have grown. I’ve been making sure I work with people one-on-one, bridging the gaps, before I bring them together to find solutions. That’s exactly what I was looking for when I applied to UQ.

I wake up thinking, today I might find a solution we’ll use in the final piece. My ultimate motivation is to see the finished product, the hardware that works and does what it’s supposed to do.

If I’ve been struggling with a question, then during my Saturday morning runs, I think about it. That really helps me. It also distracts me from thinking about how tired I might be feeling after a while!

I still try to explain what I do to my family. I think that’s a constant struggle for everybody in scientific research. But my Dad takes a lot of interest. He should be able to explain to you what laser cooling is. So I think I’ve trained him quite well.