Internships in the time of COVID-19

Jithesh Srinivas with his equipment

The collaboration between academia and industry is fundamental for developing solutions to society’s biggest problems. Co-funded PhDs and internships represent the perfect opportunity for industry and academia to work together and bridge the gap between industrial and academic research.

In February 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic when many students were returning home, LCN PhD student Jithesh Srinivas had not long started an internship at Zurich Instruments in Switzerland who co-fund his PhD project. Jithesh works in the Quantum Devices group under the supervision of Dr Mark Buitelaar and before undertaking his placement in Zurich, was working at the LCN on a project investigating the noise measurements of a carbon nanotube-based single quantum dot. Jithesh’s current PhD project is based on establishing a measurement-based entanglement protocol between two qubits and plans to increase this up to four. Measuring entanglement with reliability and certainty is a key challenge in this field, where measuring two qubits accurately and reproducibly within the LCN labs would alone be a big achievement. “The vision would be scaling a higher no. of qubits and grow it into a network of entangled qubits (quantum internet, scalable quantum chips, etc.)”, explains Jithesh.

The internship at Zurich Instruments, who specialise in quantum computing instrumentation and control, presented the opportunity for Jithesh to learn how to perform high-fidelity qubit measurements and “push the limits of qubit control; in the nanoseconds range, which is a tough challenge overall in the field”, he explains. Jithesh hoped to bring back some of this knowledge and understanding acquired at Zurich Instruments to implement in his work back at the LCN.

At the very beginning of Jithesh’s internship, Brexit and its impact were the hot topics of conversation. Fast forwards two months and COVID-19 was sweeping across the globe, and Brexit was all but forgotten. Jithesh recounted, “slowly, one by one, people stopped coming to the office until one day it was broadcast that Switzerland is going into a full lockdown”. Jithesh recalled listening to news of the impending lockdown with his colleagues and thoughts progressed to what lockdown would mean for his research, “I became afraid that all the progress and commitment will diminish, especially if I returned to the UK without finishing this internship.” Fortunately, Zurich instruments were very supportive and offered full assistance with turning his home into a lab. “On hearing the news, two of my colleagues instantly offered to transport all my lab equipment (£100,000+ worth of devices, wires, electronics, etc.) to my home which was an hour away.”

Carrying thousands of pounds worth of equipment to his car was more of a workout than Jithesh had anticipated! However, once devices, monitors, laptops, electronics, wires were all assembled in place at his ‘home lab’, Jithesh was able to continue his work on ultra-sensitive voltage measurements using a cross-correlation measurement technique to improve the signal to noise ratio. Despite being able to perform ~80% of his normal work, Jithesh did experience some limitations. For example, some projects were slowed or paused due to access restrictions. Nonetheless, it was also the lack of physical contact with colleagues which he missed; “staying in touch online (video, etc.) was not the same as physically connecting with people. If I ever needed help, everyone regularly used Teams and Slack and was very responsive to communicate any help I needed with debugging, typical problems or just general ideas/chats. Yet, it still could not be the same bonding experience I should have experienced going into the office every day, with everybody there.”

For many students studying abroad is normally challenging, particularly at the beginning when they often feel very disconnected. These feelings would have been particularly heightened during the midst of global pandemic when there is so much uncertainty and loved ones feel a million miles away. Being his first time living alone, Jithesh recalled facing many mental challenges at the beginning, “my engineering background saved me, as I had to solve them and think logically. The internet became my guide for many things for example cooking, home workouts, online-interactions.” His colleagues at Zurich instrument were a source of tremendous support. “Looking back, it could easily have been a scary breakdown moment. The sense of comradery I experienced during the initial and height of the lockdown gave me confidence and I was able to overcome feelings of anxiety.

For Jithesh the last six-months have by far been the most impactful of his life, a journey of both professional and personal growth. Working at Zurich instruments exposed him to experts in his field, allowing him to see the gaps in his knowledge, “it was the reality check of how much exact knowledge I am missing. Working along mostly with industrial scientists and experienced veterans in their field, regular chats or work with them made me realise this, and it has now become my main motivator to work harder to strive for this”, he explains. My two supervisors Jelena Trbovic and Niels Haandbaek deserve a lot of this credit, and quickly became role models by setting a high bar for what I could achieve.

Although Jithesh found the experience of working abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic sometimes emotional, it gave him a “second wind” and after a short break to recuperate, he launched back into his work at the LCN and will continue to fill in some of those knowledge gaps!

Given the ongoing pandemic, Jithesh’s industrial placement was probably slightly atypical of the usual EPSRC CASE studentship, but he nonetheless found the experience very rewarding both professionally and personally. CASE studentships help to strengthen existing partnerships and offer a great opportunity to access facilities and expertise that may not be available in an academic setting alone.

To find out more about Jithesh’s work at Zurich instruments please read his blog post.

Related links

Quantum Devices Group

Zurich Instruments

EPSRC CASE studentships