At the end of 2020, SQA launched the Undergraduate Research Scholarship providing talented students with an invaluable opportunity to gain practical research experience. 

In the program’s first cohort, 12 undergraduate students undertook a six-week research project over January and February this year at our partner universities. We asked Alice Jeffery to tell us about her research project and what she valued most from the experience. Alice is a third-year student (Bachelor of Science/Advanced Studies - Physics & Maths) at the University of Sydney.

Alice Jeffery in the Nanophotonics and Plasmonics Advancement Lab (NPAL), The School of Physics, University of Sydney.
Alice Jeffery in the Nanophotonics and Plasmonics Advancement Lab (NPAL), The School of Physics, University of Sydney.

SQA: What drew you to the scholarship?

Alice: I attend the University of Sydney, and I’m currently heading into my third year of a science degree. I started out studying chemistry and physics but recently switched out my chemistry major for a maths major (just to be more of a registered nerd). I applied for the SQA scholarship because I’m interested in quantum physics for honours and postgraduate study.

SQA: What did you find interesting about your project?

Alice: My project has involved studying the optical characteristics of self-assembled monolayers of gold nanoparticles, via transmission microscopy experiments. More simply, I’ve been using a microscope to study very thin layers of gold nanoparticles, specifically looking at how the properties of the nanoparticles can affect light from a lamp as it passes through the thin layer. 

It’s an excellent example of a 'quantum size effect’ – the effect that happens when a material is very small (for example, nanoparticles) and how the properties of the material change dramatically compared to the bulk material. For example, bulk gold is highly reflective and shiny (and gold-coloured), but the nanoparticle monolayers that I’m investigating are blue-grey coloured when you hold them up to a light. This unusual interaction of the nanoparticles with light demonstrates an effect that’s observable with the naked eye, but only explained well using quantum physics.

One of the exciting applications of nanoparticles is the possibility of making a flat lens: a lens (like in any camera) that is only a few hundred nanometres thick and relies on the unusual properties of arrays of nanoparticles to focus light. This is completely different from how lenses currently work and will revolutionise optics (once the technology is out of the lab, which it won’t be for a while yet).

SQA: What did you find most valuable about the program?

Alice: That it is specifically quantum focussed. Since I’m interested in the area already it was great to get a head start while still completing my undergraduate degree. Additionally, after a year of online classes, it was awesome to head to university and spend some time in a lab. I really missed being on campus last year and it has been great to be back.

Experience in research (especially paid experience in research) is always useful for anyone planning to be involved in research after their degree. It’s an opportunity to meet academics who you might not otherwise get to meet, and the opportunity to learn skills or theoretical knowledge beyond what is taught in your degree.

SQA: What inspired you to apply or pursue further study in quantum?

Alice: Quantum physics is interesting to me because despite it being such a counterintuitive, weird theory that describes small particles in a very abstract way, it is nevertheless crucial to explaining so much of physics that we take for granted. Colour and magnetism are both good examples of macroscopic phenomena that are not well explained without quantum physics.

SQA: What excites you about the future of quantum science?

Alice: Quantum computers (of course). More generally, I’m excited about all the surprising quantum phenomena that will undoubtedly be discovered in the future.

SQA: What's next for you?

Alice: Third year! First up in semester one is quantum physics, condensed matter physics, and hopefully some fluid mechanics.

Congratulations to all the successful scholarship recipients

More on the program

Applications for the Undergraduate Research Scholarships 2022 round will open in September this year. Please revisit our website or join our mailing list to receive regular updates on our programs and opportunities.