Graduate Profile

Dr Gavin Lancaster, MSci Physics 1998

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In total I spent seven years studying in the School of Physics and Astronomy at St Andrews.  It was a fantastic time and has given me many great memories to look back on.  It also gave me the fundamental knowledge which allowed me to end up where I am now.

My first four years were spent studying towards an M.Sci. in Physics before deciding to continue further and complete a Ph.D.  I initially started out signing up for Astrophysics but during the first few semesters I veered towards Physics with emphasis on optics since I found those courses more interesting.  Changing degree was not a problem since there is flexibility built into the system.  Throughout my time in St Andrews what I found most helpful was that the lecturers were open, friendly and always more than willing to help if you had a problem.  This was an important point for me when considering if I should change university to begin my Ph.D.  After visiting several departments around the country I concluded that the teaching and working ethos in St Andrews was what I was after, namely thorough, rigorous scientific competence while still managing to retain a relaxed atmosphere. And looking back, I don't regret my decision one bit.

I now live in Innsbruck, Austria, where I work as a Research Scientist on experimental quantum computation.  Trapped ions (instead of capacitors in conventional classical computers) are used to encode information whilst exploiting the properties of quantum mechanics to help speed things up.  The electronic states of the ions can be set in a mixture of "on" and "off", called a superposition, using pulses of laser light.  Operations, again using pulses of laser light, perform the equivalent of what a classical electronic circuit does to electrons on these ions with the output manifesting itself in the final electronic state of one, or all, of the ions. The vision is, that when computers can finally no longer increase processing speed with current technology, this quantum mechanical route might provide a practical solution for the next generation processors.  At first the experiment was daunting, being more complex than the project I worked on in St Andrews, but most of the equipment was the same as to what I was used to so it didn't take too much time to become acquainted.

One indispensable skill in particular which I learned in St Andrews was that of public speaking.  Along with helping me win the National Postgraduate Lecture Competition held every year by the Institute of Physics in 1999, it has given me the skills and confidence to address both delegates at international conferences and non-scientists alike. An honour, although a nerve-racking one, was being asked back to St Andrews to give a Friday morning colloquium on my current work.

Moving to Innsbruck has confronted me with many challenges: the language (I took French at school!!), a new culture and environment, and a complex experiment with different physics from my Ph.D. However, the good grounding in physics, experimental techniques and other skills attained from St Andrews, both as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, has helped me adapt to and contend with these issues.

But the skiing ain't bad at all!


First posted BDS 18.5.04