Career Spotlight: PhD student Emma Le Francois

Published: 10 February 2021

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The team at QuantIC caught up with Emma Le Francois to find out more about being a PhD student and what motivated her to join the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme.

Emma came to the UK from France in 2016 as an Erasmus student before deciding to embark on a PhD with Professor Martin Dawson, Director of Research in the University of Strathclyde’s Institute of Photonics.

At the moment you are undertaking your PhD at the University of Strathclyde, what exactly is it that you are working on and what is a typical day like for you?

My PhD consists of developing a three-dimensional imaging technique that can reconstruct an object’s surface using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and a mobile phone. The LEDs modulation scheme was already developed when I arrived on the project, so my first task was to implement an algorithm, using Matlab, that integrate the surface normal components to obtain the surface topography of a scene or an object. Now, I am working on combining two 3D imaging methods together (Time-of-Flight and Photometric Stereo) in order to reconstruct a discontinuous scene in high-resolution.

I always start my day by checking my emails to be up to date with different tasks I might be asked to do. Then I even go to the lab to take some measurements or correct the experimental setup depending on previous results. After that, I do some image processing on Matlab. When I start something new, I spend some time checking the literature or teaching myself how to code in a new language. For example, I’m currently following a course on Coursera about Deep learning because I need to speed up the computational time of my algorithm.

Why did you decide to do a PhD in the field of quantum imaging, what attracted you to it?

At first, I wanted to work in industry in a R&D group and at an interview I was told told that a PhD would be useful in the quantum imaging area. I was already a Master student at Strathclyde when I noticed this studentship on “High-speed, ultra-low photon flux imaging”. After an internship on night vision glasses, I knew I wanted to work in an area that deals with camera, imaging technique and image processing. Quantum imaging englobes a lot of interesting research which made me want to try it. On top of that the studentship was co-funded by Fraunhofer UK so that gave me the opportunity to keep a link with industry and applied research.

Can you tell me a bit more about your experience of applying for your studentship?

I remember it to be easy and straightforward. I first had an interview and a lab tour with Michael Strain. It took me few weeks before making the choice to apply for the studentship as I was still having a look at a job opportunity in the industry. One night, I realised that I wanted to take the studentship position. The application process was easy, I needed to send a motivation letter, my CV and two recommendation letters. Two days after applying, I was granted the studentship.

I understand your studentship was sponsored by Fraunhofer UK, what do you feel you have gained from your placement with them?

The benefit from being sponsored by Fraunhofer is the support I obtain from them on a regular basis and the access to their lab if I need any specific equipment. From the beginning of the studentship, the details of the project were decided with both my supervisors and a researcher from Fraunhofer so that all the work that I achieve can also benefit them. Knowing that the work is applicable and lines up with a project plan gives a great motivation at the beginning of the PhD. Another great advantage is if you have an innovative idea that can be commercialised then Fraunhofer UK can be of a great support as they can help you get started.

Can you tell us a bit more about the career paths you are considering?

After the PhD, I want to find a job in industry as R&D engineer. The part that I like in research is developing a product that will have a specific use. Ideally, I would like to keep working in the quantum imaging area or start working in AR/VR as I heard interesting talks about this field at a conference in Washington DC.

Women in STEM subjects are unfortunately the minority, do you feel as though you have experienced any barriers because of your gender?

I personally never experienced a situation where I felt like I could not do it because of my gender. Since high school, I’ve always been supported by my teachers and family and I’m grateful to them. I believe that in Europe a girl who wants to pursue studies in STEM can do so. It is true that women are still in minority but I’m confident that the situation will improve, slowly maybe, but surely. Many events are hosted to support women in STEM and the word will spread to the young people that physics is fun and available to everyone. I personally work in a group where I’m the only woman and I don’t even notice it! My voice is heard the same way as my colleagues and my gender does not have to do something with it. It is important to highlight the work of women to encourage younger girls that they can do the same. However, in my opinion, it is also as important to make sure women are “selected” for their work and not for their gender. For example, we need to be careful with quotas, a woman that is selected to give a speech only because the event needs more women does not help women integrate easily in the STEM research area.

What do you feel is the highlight of your career to date and why?

A paper about my work on 3D imaging using LEDs and a smartphone has been recently published by Optics Express. I take it as a great achievement because this paper has first been rejected and it was hard to hear it first. But by listening to the different advices from the reviewers, with the help of my supervisors, the paper is now published. As a student, I sometimes wonder if I have the capacity to do it, if I have selected a career path that fits me or if I aimed too high. Seeing your work being acknowledged as innovative by other researchers gives you the confidence that you need to feel like you belong in the quantum community.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be considering a studentship in quantum imaging or quantum technologies?

Doing a PhD can be quite challenging, so I suggest that you pick a topic that sounds fun to you because you will spend a lot of time on it. Keep in mind that no matter the subject you choose, you will always be able to follow your career in a different research area if you wish. Quantum technologies is a vast topic and you don’t need to be good in every theoretical aspect of it to start a PhD as you will learn everything you need as you go along.

First published: 10 February 2021