Allison MacDonald on succeeding as an experimental physicist, fighting implicit bias and asserting your confidence in STEM

Allison MacDonald, an experimental physicist at D-Wave, the Burnaby-based quantum computing firm, spends her days testing and improving the chip that helps run the company’s 2,000 qubit quantum computer. Allison talks about her unique field, shares her journey to becoming an experimental physicist and talks about challenging our implicit biases in the workplace.

What made you want to be an experimental physicist? 

When I was younger, I was exposed to STEM fields through my parents who are both computer scientists. I always loved the problem-solving aspect of math, but I struggled a little bit with science up until high school, because the curriculum felt like a lot of memorization. That changed later in high school, when I started taking physics with good teachers and realized that you could understand things from first principles. I loved that I could start from really basic assumptions, work my way up, and not have to memorize how things worked.

When I was studying physics during my undergrad years at McMaster University, I never really expected to go into experimental physics, mostly because when I did labs, I could never get the right answer, and I found that really frustrating. That changed during a co-op term at the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo. It was there that I started working in the optics lab and realized that there are no right or wrong answers. The answer you get during an experiment is the right answer; you just have to figure out why you got that answer.

What attracted you to D-Wave?

I had heard a bit about D-Wave throughout undergrad and knew about their approach to building a quantum computer, called quantum annealing. This differs from the gate model paradigm that many groups are pursuing in that it’s much easier to implement with current technologies, and still holds relevance for solving a large class of very difficult real-world problems that we face today. I was very attracted to the idea of doing something that I love and applying those skills to something that could change the world for the better.  

What is a day in the life of an experimental physicist like?   

Every day is different. It’s very dynamic and fast paced. I work mostly in research, on the processor development team, which is the team that’s responsible for the quantum computer’s chip (the hardware). Just like your laptop, the core of a quantum computer is a processor chip. Your laptop uses semi-conductors and transistors, and we use a superconducting metal called niobium. We work on designing that chip, fabricating it, measuring it and trying to figure out how to optimize its performance.

Some days I spend a few hours in the lab tinkering with things, making sure the systems are running well, and some days I am doing a lot programming. You never know what you’re going to be doing on a given day, and that’s what makes it so exciting! 

What’s the coolest thing about your job at D-Wave?

Well, I could take that very literally, and say the coolest thing about my job is the fridges we use to keep the temperature of the qubits down, because they’re kept at 10-20 milliKelvin, which is colder than interstellar space!

On a more serious note, I love the dynamic environment of D-Wave and the problem solving involved in my role. Everything is very goal oriented, instead of task oriented. I know my goal, but I might not know how to get there, and I get to figure that out every day.

You play the bagpipes! Do you think that’s helped you with your career? 

I’ve played the bagpipes since I was 11, and I play in a Grade 1 competitive and concert pipe band called Triumph Street. We’re actually ranked among the top 12 bands in the world! It’s a lot of fun, but the great thing I take away from it is the importance of teamwork and being cohesive as a unit.

You can take a band of 20 of the best soloists in the world and they won’t necessarily make a good band, because you can’t just be the soloist – you have to play with everybody else. That’s really resonated with my career and the team-based nature of the company I work with.

What challenges did you face as a woman in STEM?

Throughout my studies and career, I’ve frequently been the only woman in the room. My undergrad class was 20 students, and had about four women. In graduate school, I was the only female grad student in my lab for three years, so I never felt like I fully fit in. I wasn’t treated poorly, but I was definitely treated differently, which meant I didn’t get to have the same interpersonal relationships that everyone else in the lab had. At D-Wave, there are more women, but we are still the minority.

I’ve also found a lot of the behaviours that I had previously associated with just being part of my personality were less about me being shy and more about behaviours I had learned throughout life because I was a woman. Once I started working and seeing a few more women in my industry, I realized many of them had the same traits or had the same feelings.

A friend of mine working in education recently explained it very well as stereotype threat. Even though I know the stereotype that women aren’t good at science is wrong, I am aware of it and am afraid to step in any direction that could reinforce that stereotype.  

I definitely have noticed myself trying to change to be successful. I’ve been afraid of proving the stereotypes true, so I’ve avoided taking on opportunities that might expose my flaws. I’ve also been more hesitant to ask questions in group settings, thinking that my question might be stupid, but I’ll often hear a male colleague ask that same question. That’s something I’m more aware of now, and it’s something I’m still learning how to deal with.

How do you think implicit bias has impacted you throughout your career?

It’s something that I didn’t notice for a long time, and I definitely don’t think I often run into overt sexism or discrimination, but I feel like it’s still implicit. I sometimes feel I have to fight harder to be heard or taken seriously.

Have specific mentors and role models played an important part in your career and life?

Many different people throughout school and now at work have helped me get where I am today. I have had a great string of advisors and managers who not only appreciated my work but pushed me to pursue some really incredible opportunities.

I’ve also had an incredibly supportive group of ladies standing behind and beside me throughout every step in my career. One of these, who was the outreach coordinator at McMaster at the time, pushed me to apply for a prestigious program to work on the world’s largest particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. Through the program, I ended up spending a summer working at CERN, something I would never have accomplished without this person’s encouragement.

Finally, my parents have also always been great mentors and role models. They worked in STEM, held similar jobs and displayed gender equality both at home and at work. They’ve been supportive of all my choices and I have never felt like I was treated differently simply because I was a girl.

What can we do to make STEM fields more attractive to girls at a younger age?

Role models and mentors are so important. I don’t remember seeing a lot of female scientists when I was younger, so I try to take any opportunity I get to stand up and talk to young people about being a physicist, even though I don’t particularly like public speaking.

In addition, I think gender stereotypes from a young age are very detrimental. The idea that girls play with Barbies and boys play with Legos gives this message that girls are supposed to be homemakers, and boys are supposed to be engineers and scientists. I think that kind of societal pressure can be harmful.

For example, last year I spoke with the young grandson of a D-Wave employee who said something along the lines of “I didn’t think girls worked here.” Hearing this sort of bias in someone so young made me a little sad and reminded me how far we still have to go in changing these attitudes.

Do you know of any organizations that are trying to get more girls involved in STEM?

There are many programs doing really great work in getting young girls involved in STEM; a few groups operating in Vancouver include the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology’s Ms. Infinity program, Science World, and Simon Fraser University’s Girls Exploring Physics program. Many of these programs take a hands-on approach through workshops that allow the girls to try out various activities for themselves.

At the University of Alberta, I participated in an awesome summer research program organized by WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology), which matches girls with research groups in traditionally male-dominated fields like physics, math and engineering (and boys in traditionally female-dominated fields like nursing and nutrition). The grade 11 student I supervised completed an independent research project in our lab and even published a paper with another grad student.

In Vancouver, I’ve recently been volunteering with a non-profit called ShEvalesco which delivers workshops to high-school-aged girls on topics including assertive communication and self-advocacy, financial literacy and resilience-building. Although not strictly STEM-related, this initiative really speaks to me because I feel that there is an observable gap between young women and young men in these domains, and these skills are really important for succeeding in any career.

Do corporations have a role in fostering inclusivity in male-dominated industries?

I think organizations have a really big role to play. As much as we might like the government to mandate and legislate best practices, these practices can’t be put into place unless individuals and corporations buy into them. More junior employees can contribute to systematic change by examining their own biases and cultivating a more accepting culture, but there is only so much that can be accomplished in a bottom-up approach.

That’s why I feel executives at corporations have a moral obligation to make inclusion a priority. The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem, then commit to making change and being transparent about the efforts being made. Things like implicit bias, gender and minority sensitivity training and better hiring practices are really important. These types of initiatives need to first come from the top, but I think everyone has a role to play.

Guest writer: Sahar Shoja

articleVeronica Yao