Getting Stuck In with Matt McEwen

05 Sep 2015

Getting Stuck In with Matt McEwen

Beth went to UNSW with Matt and took advantage of being back in Sydney to hit him up for a photo shoot. Matt’s a fast-talking quantum physicist and theatre nerd who embodies the idea of form-following-function; his outfits don’t just have to take him from the office to dinner, but also to messing with hardware and running rehearsals.

Tell us a little about you.

Coat: Esprit

I’m a 4th year Physics and Computer Engineering student at UNSW in Sydney, Australia, spending far too much of my time on totally unrelated pursuits.

In my physics work, I’ve focused heavily on non-traditional computing paradigms, especially Quantum Computing -  I work for the CQC2T here at UNSW as a research assistant and traveled to Canada this year to do postgraduate coursework in quantum information theory. I aim to do a PhD in quantum computing architecture after I’ve finished my current degree at UNSW.

In computer engineering, my focus has been on architecture and electrical engineering, but recently I’ve become more interesting in the cryptography and security application of computer hardware. I’ve firmware hacked several USBs, written my own bootkit, and had some awesome fun with thunderbolt devices recently.

My other hobbies include dirt biking, arc welding, guitar playing, building computers, reading books (about 1 a fortnight during semester) and writing.

But I spend most of my time doing theater; I’ve taken two major lead roles in musicals since starting uni, as well as filling production roles ranging from stage manager, to technical officer, to vocal director to director - I’m directing my second major show this year :) (Matt’s directing Into the Woods, which is on stage in Sydney from the 8th-12th of September! We’re super sad we won’t be around to watch it).

Tell us about what you’re wearing.

Headphones: [AudioTechnica

The shirt is a good example of how I buy new clothes - I wandered past a pop-up factory clearance in the city years ago and it was on special, so I decided I needed another shirt.

The coat is Esprit, I bought in the UK about 4 and a half years ago. It’s totally falling apart at this point, I’ve resewn probably most of the seam and about a quarter of the buttons. It’s not honestly that warm either, but it has 7 or so pockets. (Only one of which I added myself!)

For someone who carts around as much random stuff as I do, that is all the reason I need to wear the jacket - when I was at the photo shoot, I had in my pockets:

a leatherman, a screwdriver, a USB cable, 2 USBs, 3 bandaids, nurofen, a knife, about 3 foot of paracord, several guitar picks, 4 pens, 2 pencils, 3 sets of keys, my phone, my cards and cash.

It’s also got huge lapels, and I have an entertaining tendency to hang my lanky ass arms off them like I’m a Texan.

How did your style evolve to what it is now?

Jacket: Billabong

With very little prompting or effort - it’s all very Form Follows Function. This is not to say that form is unimportant (people who think it is tend to look silly, and that has its own disadvantages), but things should look and be the way they are for a reason that’s more than just lone aesthetics.

I tend to end up in coloured shirts+jeans+boots+jackets a lot because it’s the most comfortable combination, with plenty of layers for temperature adjusting, and generally looks smart enough that I can afford to wear the ensemble wherever I go with no maintenance or thinking about who I might run into. This comes in handy when you can go from taking a fridge apart with a shifting spanner to meetings with the Australian Research Council to a rehearsal with a whole bunch of really fashion-conscious media students.

Do you have any style icons or favorite brands?

Shoes: Palladium

I’d like to specifically point out my boots and my headphones -

The headphones are AudioTechnica M50x’s, and they’re fantastic. They’re studio/DJ headphones, which is funny because I don’t record music or DJ, but they come with cables which can let you plug in a 5mm jack, and the audio reproduction is Really Nice and Flat.

One particular point worth mentioning is that they’re the first pair of over-ear headphones that are comfortable over my ear piercings - I am always listening to music, so I have them on my head more often than not which makes this really important. I’ve got two helix piercings, and most headphones aren’t super nice with clearance at the top of your ear.

My Palladium boots are, in my opinion, the greatest footwear possible. They’re waterproof leather gussets, and I’ve had this particular pair for about a year and a half now.

  • Boots are the best kind of footwear because they’re comfortable/grippy/have ankle support, which is generally helpful when you’ve got to be able to climb scaffolding or a tree at short notice.
  • Leather is the ideal boot material, especially if you take care of it. The leather these are made from is really nice too; it comes soft and is always comfortable, (unlike DMs for example, which are generally super stiff).
  • Waterproofing is an absolute life saver on a regular basis - nothing beats having the ability to talk through puddles with impunity, and when it rains at uni, I am one of the only people capable of walking between buildings.
  • They are really comfortable. Between the soft leather and the nice interior, these boots are the most comfortable things I own to put on my feet. I’ve been hiking in them. I walk around daily in them. When I’m traveling and spending 6 hours a day walking around cities, I wouldn’t wear anything else.
  • [They Don’t Look like Combat Boots. This is a big one for me. the vast majority of boots that tick all the other categories above are either hiking boots or military issue, and they look like they’re aimed at tactical response.]

The one thing I will say about them is that the laces on my original pair were shit, so I replaced them with paracord. The laces on my new ones were fine though. I still replaced them with paracord.

Any advice for a young person thinking about getting into a STEM field?

Jeans: Just Jeans

Get Stuck In Immediately!

Nothing is more impressive as a person than being able to say that you’ve built a thing, or gone and learned a language by yourself, or done your own physics experiments - that’s what will convince important and successful people to let you in the door, because they’ve all done stuff like that themselves at one point or another.

People sometimes say that finding opportunities is hard and that’s kind of true, but finding them becomes A Lot Easier if you’re okay with going up to the aforementioned successful people and asking for an opportunity especially for you.

If you can show them that you’re keen and that you’ll work hard and learn, they’re usually more than happy to give you one. The first step’s the hardest though - you’ve just got to start doing things yourself.

Don’t wait till you’re rich, and don’t wait till university. Start doing cool shit immediately.

What would you say is the project you’ve done that you’re proudest of?

Jeans: Just Jeans / Jacket: Billabong / Shirt: ThinkGeek / Boots: Palladium

Definitely working at the quantum computing center.

I went to a presentation night at UNSW, and I saw a talk by Michelle Simmons who runs the quantum computing center. Afterwards I went up and introduced myself, and asked her if I could do a project at the lab, and told her that I was good at getting stuck into things. So she said I could, and I started doing work with them immediately, and have been since.

It’s a little mean to call it a ‘project’, but it’s also the only thing I’ve done so far that’s made some definite positive difference to humanity in general - Advancing Science! Progress! Tally Ho!

Collaborating with the lab postdocs and PhD students is hugely fun - the kinds of challenges we face are on the edge of human understanding, and we’re often just guessing and trying things out.

I fell in love with the cutting edge of applied physics the moment I started working in a lab - it’s a hilarious combination of ludicrously difficult physics, seat-pants engineering, creative tinkering, serviette calculations, professional coffee drinking, very detailed computer simulations, presentations to executives, writing code that needs to be accurate to the nanosecond, and performing percussive maintenance of million dollar experimental set-ups.

Casual afternoon tasks at the center include attempting to become a semi-expert in microwave frequency circuit design, translating a physics paper from Japanese, learning a new computing language, learning the WHS for liquid nitrogen handling, or fixing some piece of electronic hardware that was custom made at the center and has no manual.

What’s a misconception about a STEM field that you’d like to clear up?

Jeans: Just Jeans / Coat: Esprit



Well, actually, you can think of it that way if you like, technically, but only once you have a bachelor in physics and understand which misconceptions to avoid when you’re using the Copenhagen Interpretation.

In my view, the entire benefit of doing a STEM degree is building up a strong vocabulary of ‘everyday experiences’ that aren’t everyday at all - for physics that includes relativistic frames of reference, black holes, plasmas, superconductors, strong magnetic fields, indistinguishable particles and other magical things.

Every single step along that path adds a whole range of new and super cool situations to your list of ‘everyday experiences’, giving you a whole new set of ways to understand the world and how things work. And only once you’ve gotten that understanding can you amuse yourself by making silly arguments about QM Interpretation using cats.

It’s the same with

  • maths - gaining a new structure to understand the relationships between things, rather than just pushing numbers around
  • programming theory - learning a deeper appreciation for the structures that underly communication, thought, knowledge and language, not just facts about bits and bytes
  • theater - memorising, analysing and performing a character in a show gives you a depth of emotional vocabulary that is non-typical
  • reading - experiencing the lives of other characters expands your understanding of people’s lives, their experiences and how the world works/could work

and with music, and most kinds of art, and so on.

There is actually nothing I enjoy more than when these vocabularies overlap and mix - realising that a certain chord progression has a similarity to the Fourier transform, or that an emotional bind that a character in a book is in is really a lot like a physics experiment you’ve studied, in a weird kind of way.

Those cross-discipline isomorphisms are super cool, but also are really interesting in the way they shed light on really strange problems and let you find really weird solutions.

What is the best way (if any) for people to follow you on social media?

Jeans: Just Jeans / Jacket: Billabong

I write blogs and other things but haven’t unified where I publish them yet. When I do, it’ll be located at

This was definitely a post of firsts! A huge thanks to Matt for being our first Australian, our first guy and our first Science feature! We hope you enjoyed reading this as much as we enjoyed putting it together. If you’re in Sydney, go and see Into the Woods and say hi for us! Also, please keep in mind: Quantum Physics is NOT ABOUT CATS!


Dona & Beth