Sir Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences

Celebrating Mathematical Achievement by Women





Debbie Leung

Debbie Leung is Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo and was a Visiting Fellow on the Mathematical Challenges in Quantum Information programme in 2013.




When did you become first interested in mathematics and what keeps your interest fresh?

My interest started so early that I really cannot remember (probably kindergarten). My research is in quantum information. Hilbert space (even a finite dimensional one) is large and there are plenty of surprises in my exploration.


Could you tell us a little about your career path so far and what your current research involves?

I got my BS in Physics and Mathematics from Caltech. I was obsessed about cosmology (thus the Physics degree) while keeping Mathematics as a hobby. I went to Stanford for my PhD in Physics, with the intention to study the inflationary model. Within a few months, I came across interesting papers on quantum error correcting codes, and switched to quantum information. I spent time at IBM (TJ Watson RC) and Caltech as a postdoc before joining the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization and the Institute for Quantum Computing in the University of Waterloo.

Currently, I'm studying the capacities of quantum channels to transmit quantum, private classical, or classical data.


What achievements are you most proud of?

I am always afraid of this question in (job) interviews. I have enjoyed the discoveries of many of my results, and the implications of them. Pride is somewhat besides the point.


How do you achieve a balance between your work and homelife?

Following Beth Ruskai, I also want to replace "homelife" by "life".

Despite a deep and genuine interest in research, work (as a package) can be demanding and stressful at times. Workload is generally high with heavy fluctuation. More time and effort spent on work translates to more output, so, it is hard to be off work without a sense of guilt.

I am thankful that my family (both immediate and afar) is accommodating and understanding. For me, an effective and quick way to recharge (when it is safe to) is to let a serious and engaging hobby take over my focus for a short time.


What advice would you offer to young women who are just starting their careers in the mathematical sciences?

Research in mathematics is not a straightforward career path, but if you find it interesting and rewarding, don't let anyone discourage you. Probably because researchers spend lots of time assessing results and people, comments can be dismissive, or seemed to be so to the received. This impacts disportionately women or people with more sensitive cultural background or personality. It is important to find a good balance between being receptive to feedback and being confident and assured of your own judgement.


Has your visit to the Isaac Newton Institute been fruitful?

I was surrounded by good people, intrigued by interesting questions, and was free from my usual duties. The visit was more fruitful than I would have hoped for.