24 is thé magic number

Tomorrow, 24th September is thé day I have been waiting for about a year (ostensibly) but it seems I have been waiting for this all my life!

The Indian mission to Mars, Mangalyaan is to enter thé Mars orbite if all goes well. How I hope it does!

This mission was conceived and delivered at record low costs. If it comes through successfully it will be thé first mission to Mars that succeeded on it’s début. It is also one of thé cheapest missions of thé kind. As thé Indian Prime Minister remarked: Mangalyaan cost less than thé film Gravity!

This is not news to some of you who have read my earlier blogposts on space: I dreamt and still dream of going into space. I wanted to be an astronaut and it still hurts that I could not achieve this ambition, at least professionally. Perhaps one day thé dream will come true in some form.

The truth is that I never ever thought I would read or hear these words: “India’s mission to Mars”. Yet thèse words are now a reality. How beautiful that is, how sublime.

The mission (fingers crossed will be successful in thé conventional sensé of thé word as well) to me is already something of a success:
To be able to dream of open space and other worlds. To act on that dream is courageous. It sets free thé aspirations of thé millions who live in India and countries like India. It says to us all that we must never give up on our dreams no matter how impossible they seem. Our dreams define us, they define who we will be one day. Is there a point therefore in being parsimonious in our dreams?

I am looking at thé mission updates on ISRO’s site. Hope with me that thé next update is of Mars orbit for this craft. Celebrate thé success of this dream of Mars, of space, of life.

By artiagrawal Posted in General

Admissions and education

University education is meant to be the passageway that delivers students to a good life: exciting, fulfilling and financially stable jobs, social mobility and realising their dreams. Those from financially poor backgrounds see college as a passport to a better life, while those from privileged backgrounds may see it as inevitable.

Which passageway to choose? That is which college or university one goes to is critical. Future income, the networks one forms, the careers that open up all depend on this. Some studies (see this BBC article) show that in the UK top positions in most fields are disproportionately held by people from private schools. UK society is deeply elitist. Possibly it is not the only country to be that way.

Yet for the most part it is the passage/college that chooses us as much as we try and choose a college. Especially when the college in question is Oxbridge, Russell Group university (in the UK) or an Ivy League institution (in the US) for example.

How do these august and venerable institutions decide to whom they will open their doors?

Can the state school educated, the ethnic minorities, the poor hope to be admitted as easily as richer counterparts from private schools and well connected parents?

What is the admission criteria? Is it based on merit? Is it objective and transparent?

I don’t know. But here is an article about Harvard University which at least towards the end discusses some of these points.

An unexpected exposure!

Some you may have read a blogpost I wrote a while ago on the National Student Survey (NSS), critiquing it.

As it was a while ago, it came as quite a surprise to me when a journalist from the Guardian asked if I could summarise the post into a shorter article for their website!
http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/aug/12/do-we-still-need-national-student-survey-university

I agreed and lo and behold, it is up on the Guardian website, along with another short comment on freshers’ week.

Quite exciting and fun as it was unexpected. Perhaps writing about policy on this blog is ok after all!

A view from the other side: journal publishing

For a long time I have been on one side of the table: writing and submitting papers to various academic and technical journals. So I have like most scientists my views on the process.

Now that I am also sitting on the other side of the table: part of the journal editorial team, it is an entirely new experience!
I recently joined the IEEE Photonics Journal as Associate Editor and in early 2014 I took over as Section Editor for the Journal of European Optical Society: Rapid Publications.

As an author, almost inevitably I felt the review process took too long. Why cant reviewers send their reviews on time – I would fume.
Occasionaly I felt the reviewer/s may not be from the exact technical area and hence not fully able to see the nuances in my paper! They are missing the whole point/don’t appreciate the fine technical details of this area- I would fume!
Very often I felt that changing 1 sentence in the manuscript did not merit a “major revision required” judgement!
Changing reviewers where revisions were needed also came across as disruptive to the process to me as an author. After all, the new reviewer seems to have a completely different perspective from the older one!

And now?

Well as a section/associate editor dealing with each submission assigned to me raises many difficulties:
– to find appropriately qualified reviewers who are willing to perform the review within reasonable time. This can be fiendishly difficult!
– when the reviews are late, how the devil do you get people to do this voluntary work on time and respond to your reminder emails!
– how do I find appropriate reviewers if the manuscript is in an area that I am not a specialist in?
– make sure I dont send too many manuscripts to the same reviewers- avoid reviewer fatigue!
– ensure that there is some diversity in the reviewers (gender balance for example)
– check the reviews and see their quality, relevance, fairness, confidence (not satisfied means starting all over with new reviewers!)
– make decisions where the reviewers do not agree

So when I submitted a manuscript recently to Optics Express and began tracking its progress, I found that I was guessing the internal workings of the process as much as I wanted it to be speedy and positive!

It sure made me see publishing in a different light. How do you feel about it?

Spiralling at a rapid rate

As promised I will try and write a little bit about research too!

So here goes.

At OWTNM 2014 in Nice I met a researcher from Aston University in Birmingham. They use fs laser inscription to write waveguides in Lithium Niobate (the spot exposed by the laser has a lower index than Lithium Niobate. Therefore by writing several spots around a central “core” area, it is possible to create low index “holes” around a core, and guide light in this core by total internal reflection).

We got talking and now we are trying to collaborate. The idea is that I use my experience with the spiral design to optimize a spiral waveguide that offers sufficient guidance with low loss and changes the dispersion. While Mykhalo will make the waveguide and test it.

The challenge here is that the index contrast created is very small: ~-.015 to -.02. With such a low index contrast changing the total dispersion (by making the waveguide dispersion large) is quite tough. Since the index contrast is low, the field is not easily confined to a small spot and the effective index of the guided mode remains very close to the material refractive index.

So I have to find a way to alter the dispersion appreciably. Secondly Mykhalo wants the results before end of September! So its quick time work.

And I am loving it.

It is really exciting to work on something real-life and challenging. Even more so because there is the possibility of seeing my own design being fabricated!

By artiagrawal Posted in General

How did we get here?

Have you wondered how you reached the particular point you are at (in a project/relationship/job/career..)?

I just realised that I had started this blog with the intention of writing primarily about my research interests and current work. I realise now that for the most part I write about loads of other stuff. The blog has become a means to voice my opinions on Science policy, education, Science related media and so much more….
Little did I know that having a platform to voice one’s views is dangerous: it can draw a person in and captivate them.

So I shall try and be good and balance the writing a bit and write a little bit more on research as was the original plan. Though I can’t quite give up writing about the other stuff…

The question is how does one end up here, having drifted (in this case in a pleasant way) from the original purpose?

By artiagrawal Posted in General

Working away

As some of my posts indicate there are times when I feel as buried under work as anyone. And I am sure you can attest to feeling the same:
– not enough hours to finish the work waiting
– thinking about work while you should be engrossed in family, friends
– feeling stressed and perhaps even low confidence because it seems you cant cope

These things are increasingly happening to academics. In the UK, the employment contracts many of us sign do not stipulate maximum working hours or exact duties. Instead we are meant to perform the taks considered necessary/relevant to our role by our employer. the time we spend performing these tasks is also in some ways implicitly decided by our employer.

Where does this leave us if we are over burdened?

The situation seems the same in every university: (junior staff especially) academic staff toiling away to teach several courses, while trying to establish themselves as research supestars. Then there is the admin work…In order to cut costs, staff are fired and the work redistributed amongst fewer staff members, who somehow are supposed to do more with less (less time, less rest, less resources).
Apply for grants, publish in top journals, get excellent teaching scores from students, publish a book, do the admin… the list is endless.

In trying to achieve these targets we put in ever increasing hours. Holidays are of shorter duration every year and some how the work laptop finds a way ito come on even during weekends, late nights and holidays.

There is no overtime money from the employer for any of this. No one from the Higher Education authority or any emplyment body/union to hold these employers to account.

Now this may seem like a rant and a moan (it is). But it also more.

It is upto us to not fall into this trap. While we may not all be able to walk up with our resignation lettter and walk into a better job, we can assert some control over our minds.

Our anxiety at not being able to do as much as we think is needed, is perhaps our biggest problem. If we can step back from the situation and the anxiety to objectively view things, we can make better decisions about our goals and how to achieve them.

I read an article recently which I found quite useful: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/feature-work-less-do-more-live-better/2014929.article

In my view we need and deserve to be treated more fairly by employers, a complete change in attitude is needed in educations. While we work towards this, we can also make changes in our individual lifestyles, thinking and perhaps self-management to help ourselves.

Teamwork and jigsaws

I was looking at the work of Daniel Stokols, an environmental psychologist, to see if I could find any work on how buildings and their design impacts reactions of students.

What I did find was the Jigsaw Classroom, a cooperative learning technique. The technique was developed to help teach in racially diverse classrooms and avoid situations like the Columbine massacre developing.

The idea is to get students to work in teams in such an effective manner, with each student acting as the proverbial vital piece of the jigsaw, that completes the puzzle. In this technique all members of the team learn to respect the importance and contribution of every other team members, learn to work with them, overcoming distrust and fear. Each person reliases that no one can be a freeloader or minimise the work of others.

It should be possible to adapt this method to tackle any kind of divisiveness based on difference of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, age and even disability.

I find it amazing that there are such innovative techniques to help delvier better teaching!

In a bind

Student days… my glasses are misting in memory of those fun filled days: laughter, friends, evenings out, and such like.

Unremarkably, this kind of memory is a selective. In these sepia printed snapshots of my youth, there is no sign of the tensions associated with exams, report submissions and incomplete projects!

Well, as it is, I dont have to rely on memory for that!

I am attending the MA in Academic Practice here at City Uni London and along with the fabulous learning (on how to teach) come the assignments, group work, assessments and the like. So if this post is a little rambling forgive me for my brains are scrambled! Right now I am well behind on two chunks of my module on Technology Enhanced Academic Practice (TEAP):

- social bookmarking: we need to use a tool like DIIGO to bookmark sites and write about some of these
– the final project (also the biggest chunk of the module!)

This module has been all about using technology in a blended learning environment: mixing traditional teaching methods and approaches with technology. All of it felt new (even the traditional teaching and learning models, leave alone the new stuff).
I learned about things like:
•Salmon’s five step model
•Community of Practice/Community of Inquiry
•Reflective practice
•Constructive alignment
•Social constructivism
•Behaviourism
•Problem-based learning
•Connectivism
•Situated Learning
•Humanism
•Laurillard’s Conversational Framework
•Cognitivism

So the tech stuff (which is increasingly important given the digital nature of our lives) in the course was on:
– how to use online communities in teaching and learning. It is possible to use wikis and blogs etc. to get students to interact with one another as well as the instructor to learn, sometimes remotely and even asynchronously
– reflection: getting students to reflect on their work and learning to improve their learning outcomes
– tools like Diigo for social bookmarking, blogs for interaction

My project is on formative assessment using tools like Moodle (online platform used my many universities for education). The formative assessment idea is that students learn as they test themselves, but they learn better if they can get feedback very quickly (even real time) and they are able to judge where they are weak, or what mistakes they tend to make.
So I (over reached) and said that I would make a series of short numerical Physics questions, which can be delviered via Moodle and be set up in such a way that students can get feedback as they attempt the question.

Not only that! I then thought this was too easy. So I would then make a series of short videos explaining how people could use Moodle to set up such tests, since many colleagues find it difficult to do this. What was I thinking?!!!!

And now here I am, using this blog and online community to moan about the hardships of my student life. I have enjoyed the course tremendously and it has sparked so many new ideas in my head about teaching. But it has also reminded me how my students feel.

So if anyone of you is in danger of forgetting the pressures of student life, enroll into a course now!

Parity-time symmetry at OWTNM

One of the most interesting talks at the conference was on Parity-Time symmetry by H.Benisty and relating these to reciprocity or lack thereof.

Hermitian operators have real eignvalues. By adding imaginary terms of opposite signs to the diagonal terms, the eignevalues can still remain real! These imaginary terms in the physical picture can be seen as loss/gain. The possibility of spatial-nonreciprocity comes in.

Here are a list of papers worth looking at to get more on this:
1. Physical Review Letters, Vol. 80, pp. 5243-5246, 1998
2. Nature Physics, Vol. 6, 192-195, 2010
3. Optics Express, Vol. 13, pp. 3068-3078, 2005
4. Physical Review Letters, Vol. 106, 213901, 2011
5. Nature Materials, Vol.12, 108-113, 2012
6. Optics Express, Vol. 19, pp. 18004-18019, 2011
7. Optics Express, Vol. 21, pp. 21651-21668, 2013