Filipina physicist receives international rising talent award

Marilyn Paed-Rayray, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 15 2019 11:45 PM

Filipina quantum physicist Mary Jacquiline Romero. Photo courtesy of Jan Levent

PARIS, France — A Filipina quantum physicist on Thursday was named as one of the most promising women scientists of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science (FWIS) International Rising Talents.

Dr. Mary Jacquiline Romero was recognized for her research on using particles of light to encode information that could lead to secure information transmission.

“I am actually very proud and honored. Actually, it is a surprise to me, to be honest," she said.

Romero is an experimental quantum physicist at the University of Queensland in Australia.

In 2017, Romero won the National Award in Australia and from the winners of all the national prizes, she was nominated and chosen to represent Australia.

Emerging as one of the best 15 rising talents, Romero said she was ecstatic.

“Everytime you’re given an opportunity to apply for something, if you’re nominated especially, I do my best, but it wasn’t really something oh, I’m sure I’m going to get that, because I knew that I would be competing with all the national winners all over the world," she said.

"And so this idea of competing with all these other winners from all over the globe and emerging as one of the top 15, that’s really I would say, I am very honored but it’s also very challenging. I think it was really a tough competition. And seeing my fellow winners these past few days, we’re all really great scientists and I am sure there are so many others out there.”

Creating new unhackable technology

Romero’s work aims to reliably secure communication, help conserve data privacy and guard against the growing risk of cyberattacks, and deliver more powerful computation.

“I encode, light, I have different shapes of light and I use that as something like an alphabet that you can write messages with," she said.

"But the big picture is to enable us to encode information using particles of light in the future and the advantage there is because if we use the rules of quantum physics we can actually have secure information transmission using these particles."
 
Citing last year’s Facebook security breach that exposed accounts of 50 million users where hackers exploited a feature to gain access to user accounts and potentially take control of them, Romero said this can be prevented from happening in the future.

“Quantum information actually holds the solution. If we really take quantum physics and you ask me as a physicist what’s the best way of encoding information such that it would be secure-- you use quantum information, use quantum physics and that’s the best," she said.

"That’s not what we do right now kasi mahirap and everything right now, works alright so why would you change it?"
 
Early challenges

Romero had been interested in quantum physics since she was 15 years old.

She went to the Philippine Science High School and continued to love physics even in her days at the University of the Philippines.

“The hardest thing for me at the start is to get into quantum physics. I grew up in the Philippines, went to the Philippine Science High School, I am really thankful to them," she said.

"I went to the University of the Philippines (UP). But to pursue quantum physics especially what I want to do — experimental quantum physics — it was hard in the Philippines because there was no group at that time.”

Trying times, according to her, were when she had to convince others outside the Philippines that she wanted to do a Ph.D. in quantum physics and when she worked hard to look for a place where she can practice and contribute what she has acquired from her studies in quantum physics.

A scholarship grant in Scotland broke the barrier and paved the way for her research.

“I felt that from that point on if I just take care and really do my best every day, it was easier from then. I just have to do my part,” she said.

She also had to juggle physics career and motherhood when she had her first child in her first year as a Ph.D. student in Glasgow.

“Seeing no other PhD students with kids, that actually made me really anxious, parang merong story na pagka-anak ka, dapat titigil na lahat," she said.

Growing up with a working mom and a supportive, physicist husband she was spared of the task to choose between career and motherhood, she managed to handle the demands of being a mother, a wife and a physics career.

‘Science is like art’

In June last year, Romero went to the National Physics Conference in the Philippines, which she used to attend in her early years as a physicist.

She was inspired to see a lot of talented undergraduate students in physics doing their research in the same manner she did during her time.

“For those who are already in the university pursuing physics, be confident. Don’t feel that you’d be inferior, because I had that feeling before… That you’d be inferior because ‘I am from the Philippines’," she said.

"It’s actually where you really get good education. You just have to value that and really internalize that. If you’re already in science, don’t be intimidated. Don’t feel you’re not at par with the rest of the world because you are.”

Romero added that "science is not something that you have to fear."

"I see science like art. And nobody could say I am scared of art, but a lot of people would say, I am scared of science. It’s really the same thing. It’s an outlet for human creativity. Pursue it. You equip yourself with the tools that you need to be successful and everything will fall into place," she said.