School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Under quantum lock and key – Meet James Godfrey

PhD Candidate in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy    

by Phil Gaudreau, April 2020

Amy Cleaver

Google recently announced it had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’, meaning the company had created a quantum computing device that could solve problems traditional computers could not.

This is great news for those trying to create new drugs or improve search algorithms - tasks that can take an impractically long time even on the most powerful supercomputers. However, in the hands of a hacker, a quantum computer could easily break even the most rigorous security algorithms at your bank, hospital, or government department.

Graduate student James Godfrey is working to develop quantum encryption techniques that could help keep sensitive information safe in the future.

“Essentially, we create these artificial atoms called quantum dots, place them inside these nano antennas which are 200 nanometres wide, and guide the light up through the antenna to transmit encrypted messages,” he says. “We work with collaborators in Ottawa who create the objects, while we use lasers to control the messages. Security is a pressing problem, and this is a way where physics guarantees someone else can’t read the message.”

James isn’t alone in trying to tackle these sorts of challenges. His twin brother Alan is also a physics PhD student in Ottawa, and the two have had the opportunity to collaborate in some of their research.

The Peterborough natives have always had a thing for the physical sciences. It was an exciting day in James’ undergraduate studies when they learned how microwave ovens worked, and how the screen door prevented microwaves from leaking out. When the two were young, they would sink thousands of hours into LEGO engineering projects together. “I used to tell my parents I want to be a scientist during the week, but work at the LEGO factory on weekends,” he says. 

Their fascination with physics has spawned at least one hobby for the Godfrey boys: watch collecting.

“We both collect and tinker with obscure watches, especially vintage mechanical and quartz Japanese watches. Watches are full of fascinating physics and engineering,” he says. “We enjoy the history, the aesthetics, the mechanics, and we egg each other on. It’s bad.”

As he continues his studies, James intends to join his brother in Ottawa as he seeks an internship or post-doctoral opportunity before starting his career at one of the many optical technology companies in the nation’s capital. James has enjoyed Kingston, however, calling it a more scenic version of his hometown. Even his brother has noticed something different about Queen’s.

“He visited the campus and commented on the more social atmosphere at Queen’s versus his university experience,” James says. 

During his time here, James has become quite involved in the broader Queen's community. He is the president of the local Optical Society chapter, an educational organization that reaches out to local classrooms to teach them about physics. He has also participated in recreation volleyball and is currently participating in five Queen’s Dance Club classes.

“This is something that I only started doing in the last two and a half years and it has become a big part of my life,” he says. “I have made some of my best friends here through that club and helps me avoid feeling isolated in times where I otherwise have to be laser-focused on my work.”

He also had a unique interdisciplinary research opportunity through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funded CREATE-MAPS program, a unique Queen’s course offering that brings together teams of graduate students to tackle challenges in a short 10-week timeframe. 

James’ team decided to look at how to get more consistent readings when determining whether a beet plant is healthy. Some farmers use camera-equipped drones to assess large areas of plants but it was discovered that, unless the leaves were properly oriented, the readings could be highly unreliable.

“I have had some great experience working across disciplines with chemistry and chemical engineering students and have seen it open lots of other collaborations between chemists and physicists here,” he says. “It was also really rewarding to apply the tools of physics to a problem in the field of agriculture, and make what is hopefully an impactful contribution in such a short time.”

As a result of the CREATE-MAPS program, James has also gained experience in grant writing, and will have the opportunity to hire and supervise an undergraduate researcher this summer. 

James originally chose Queen’s for the opportunity to work with his supervisor, Dr. James Fraser, and suggests anyone considering graduate studies reach out to potential supervisors before applying. 

“The Physics professors at Queen’s are all great to work with, and since meeting them all I can think of ten other profs I would have loved working with,” he says.

To learn more about the PhD in Physics program, visit the School of Graduate Studies’ website.