Programming Languages and Art

I was recently translating a very old piece of code written in the ’80s in FORTRAN77 to Matlab. This process has taken me 3 weeks for 20 line code!

Partly because probably I am not a skilled programmer and partly because statements like GOTO do not exist in Matlab.

My aim was to work out exactly the efficiency of a numerical algorithm so I needed to know exactly the value of each variable at every loop counter etc. so the code had to be transcribed exactly. No fancy coding skills to improve the “code” were to be invoked.

In this exercise I realised that programming is more an art form than anything else. There is a beautiful flow of logic (actual mathematical algorithm)  that has to be channeled (dictated by the language constructs, data structures and commands) into a specific form (much like a canal I suppose).

Each time we choose a different language, expressing the same algorithm can take a very different form. Interestingly the language itself can impose either an improvement or a the opposite. In some ways the language can function like the clothes we force our bodies into- giving a specific shape.

In some cases its bit a like struggling to find a word in a language where it doesn’t exist  to express a sentiment that we have a word for in another language.

I wonder if anyone has studied how programming language constraints influence actual logic/algorithms?

Or is this simply my own lack of expertise leading me to fanciful thoughts?

A report from CLEO 2017

Last week I spent some super time at CLEO 2017 in San Jose, California.

The conference as usual was very good and I will write about my favourite talks. There were some new and exciting events that made the conference more special. I gave my own short course on FEM at CLEO now for the 4th time, so that was fun.

So the talks first: I found Dr. Nergis Mavalavala‘s plenary talk on LIGO very cool. It is good to hear about fields where Optics is being used for cutting edge research, while the field is not primarily Optics. Astrophysics has long been an interest for me, so no huge surprises that I liked this talk. I was excited to learn that India is planning a LIGO type detector too!

The session on halide perovskite lasers and particularly the talk by Tze Chien Sum, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore was excellent to understand the current state of the art in these lasers and the challenges facing the field now.

The application and technology review on Supercontinuum Generation (SCG) was another great session: focus on SCG theoretical and experimental development was covered in talks including a historical perspective. It gave a sense of how an entire research field evolved and is still current! My favourites talks in this session were by Alan Willner ( a past president of OSA) on Structured Light using Spatial, OAM and Wavelength Domains for Terabit/sec Communications; and by Adam Devine of  Fianium, who spoke on Supercontinuum  Laser Sources Future Await Wide Applications.

The best technical part however for me was the Bright Idea competition sponsored by Quantel. I was asked to judge the competition with 3 others. We heard 4 talks, and each was amazing. In 15 minutes the competitors took us from the basics in their fields to the research frontier, and what they were going to do, why this was important and the innovation in their approach.
I learned about photo acoustic imaging of the brain, quantum optics (a topic I have always found a bit difficult) and aerodynamics research.  It was an incredibly difficult decision to make amongst the 4 finalists, but eventually the winner was from University of Otago, Harald Schwefel who spoke on Photon Triplets for Quantum Optics and Secure Communication. Next year I think I might submit an entry into the competition as well!

Now to the exciting new events: there was a workshop on unconscious bias, the first I attended. We were shown images and we discussed our reactions to these… this led to realising what are the underlying, unconscious but almost immediate reactions we have, how we categorise or classify.  How we react to people and see someone as warm and relatable or as competent and capable, while someone else as untrustworthy/incompetent. It was a revelation! I would highly recommend trying one of these if you can.

I was stunned to realise how much the colour of a person’s skin meant to me when I judged the person as warm or not. That led me to think if I was then letting this influence my decisions on students, on hiring people, on my volunteer work…

I came away with much to think about from CLEO: both technical and also personal.

St. Petersburg and what I learned there

I last blogged about visiting Leuven for OSA to talk about networking in a workshop on career development for PhD students. I picked up some great career tips there.

The very next day after the Leuven workshop, I flew to St. Petersburg to participate in an Optics Seminar and a Women in Photonics event for IEEE Photonics Society at ITMO University, organised by Anna Voznesenskaya (Dean of Laser and light dept., ITMO University).


IEEE Women in Photonics Session at ITMO University, St. Petersburg

This was my first visit to Russia (a country that I have long been fascinated with) so I was excited beyond belief.

My expectations were exceeded and my thinking challenged!

For a first the number of women in Photonics (and Science, Engineering etc.) at ITMO (and the Russia Federation) seems to be far larger compared to many other countries. I met women who were Heads of Department, Deans, Vice Deans in the technical departments in the university and tech businesses.


Working hard: Presentation skills workshop

The morning half of the programme saw a workshop on presentation skills by the foreign languages department, headed by Yulia Ryabukhina. This was a brilliant interactive and fun workshop and we focussed on communicating science to non-experts. Working in small groups we all had to make presentations on photonics!

The afternoon session focused on career paths of 4 women from STEM. We had Prof. Irina Livshits who is a legend in the field of optical design talking about her work and career. We had a younger professional, Natalya Demkovich (Head of dept., Bee Pitron SP Ltd.) talk about her transition from student to young professional and head of a department and some of the challenges on the way. We had an excellent talk


Conclusion of the workshop

from Natalia Bystriantseva on her experience of working on light design for the built environment and the importance of doing work which agrees with one’s own intellectual philosophy and principles. Her thoughts on how design centred around human beings leads to happier and better used built spaces really resonated with me and it is something I want to learn more about.

Following the talks, we had breakout groups to come up with points on mentoring, networking, volunteering etc. One thing that made sense was that E&D aside, students and young professionals all can benefit from professional development and skills training.

That aside, these ladies rocked!

Honestly, they were the most effortlessly confident, smart and intelligent women I have seen. The idea that they could be discriminated or would be didn’t seem to occur to them and their professional stature seems to reflect that.

So: why is Russia more equitable for women in STEM?

I think that needs more probing and I feel we could definitely learn from our colleagues in Russia. Demographically there are more women than men there- which would help. An outcome of Soviet times as well perhaps? But there has to be more: and I really want to explore it.


Having a blast at the holography museum with Prof. Irina 

Apart from the workshop I was given such fantastic hospitality and warmth by Anna, Irina etc. I had lovely Georgian food, I was show Irina’s labs and the holography museum where we had tremendous fun! I visited the world famous Hermitage museum and the Church on Spilled Blood, the Russian Museum….

I found every aspect of life here fascinating. I ate caviar on my toast!! I had vodka for breakfast!!! I found St. Petersburg to be huge: buildings were sprawling and compared to London it felt like everything was magnified in size at least 10 times. I had the great pleasure of seeing some of the works of the master, Wasilly Kandinsky – what a treat that was.

Language was a barrier and I wish I had brushed up my Greek let


Blinis with salmon and red caviar

ters to read signs better and made more effort to learn Russian phrases to communicate more with people. I found people to be a bit shy, but very warm and helpful when I approached them in spite of the language issue. Though after living in London I realised I had gotten so used to the multicultural nature of the city, seeing almost no people of colour in St. Petersburg was a bit weird for me. Not to say it is not multicultural: there are people and the way of life (food etc) from the various republics that form the Russian Federation.

Above left a picture of the Palace Square with the Hermitage (Winter Palace in the background); right: Inside the Hermitage at the private chapel of the Tsars!

All it amounts to is that I need to go back for some thorough research into:

  • How is there better equality for women in science
  • Learn from Irina about optical design
  • Explore St. Petersburg and other cities
  • Get myself a Faberge egg replica and a Palek box that I missed out on this time





Chocolate milk in Leuven and other things…

I was lucky enough to be invited to a PhD career development day at KU Leuven as an OSA Travelling Lecturer this last month.

I had a wonderful experience (you may roll your eyes and say: “she says that for all the places she visits!” True but I can’t help it if I have such great hosts in such lovely locations).

First work and then I’ll talk about the chocolate milk…

The OSA student chapter at Leuven, recognising that most PhD students worry about their future prospects put together a really smart programme: 1 hour session by Cathy from Cheeky Scientist on transitionising from academia to industry, I had an hour on networking skills and then a final hour with Wim Van Kerchove


Lunch with the chapter officers and speakers

( on applying for industry jobs.


About 180 students attended the workshop and there were questions for all the speakers. Plenty of students came up to talk to us in the reception that followed as well so there was a chance to get to know some people on a more individual level apart from getting a sense of the concerns of the larger group.

Looking for a job is a serious matter and requires effort and time. Cathy and Wim’s talks were very helpful in explaining how building a profile and network are needed not on the day one starts the great job quest, but well in advance. Cathy’s tips on how to create a good job search strategy, a good linkedin profile were very illuminating.

While Wim gave some really crucial insights into how recruitment folks and headhunters look at job applicants: a view from the other side. He stressed that most jobs are not advertised and therefore networking, apprenticeships etc. are very important in finding a job.

To me a really important thing that both Cathy and Wim stressed on was that it should be about finding a job that suits you, not just any job. Happiness and satisfaction should be present in your job and ensure a good work life balance. Remember that when you are looking and feel desperate!


Legendary chocolate milk!

My hour on networking skills was spent exploring what networks are, how they are useful, how each person’s networking style should be suited to their personality, and finally how networks can be built, grown and tapped. I emphasise here as I did in Leuven, to have a thriving network, one must give back to it not just take from it, else the network will wither.


If you want to know more you will have to invite me to your chapter!

Now to the chocolate milk and chocolates.

On the evening before the workshop I saw a young man drinking chocolate milk at a bar. I was intrigued and at lunch with Valerie and the others, I had some too. I got a glass of milk accompanied by a bowl of chocolate pellets. These melted into the hot milk and gave me the most delicious chocolatey chocolate milk I ever had. Not only that, Valerie Yousef and the others got us lovely Belgian chocolates.

A quick word on Leuven itself: beautiful medieval town with very friendly and


Incredible architecture at Leuven

helpful locals. I had so much help finding my hotel in spite of the language barrier. I feel so much more welcome in a place when the local populace is welcoming- makes the experience richer. Leuven has a lot of Dutch influence so canals, language, shops… I was reminded strongly of Amsterdam.


And so I departed for London feeling rather satiated, ready for my next adventure to St. Petersburg!

A special Easter present

I woke up today feeling excited with a  tremendous sense of anticipation.

Easter means chocolate so you might think that was what it was- but it was a whole lot more!

My very first PhD student thesis submission as a supervisor!

It almost felt like I was submitting- that is how great the feeling is. After 4 years to see a student reach the finish line (well almost, pending the viva) and be there with them on the journey is incredible.

There are highs and lows, calculations gone wrong, errors discovered, papers rejected (and the heartache that engenders) and the sense of accomplishment when the results show something new, papers are accepted…

As a supervisor facilitating the learning process for a student, and guiding them on the journey (which admittedly can be rocky at times) where they can feel they are a scientist is huge privilege. I think the learning goes both ways, and at times it is not clear who the student is.

This feeling today is liking climbing a mountain and seeing a beautiful view. I hope there will be more such in the future!

Excitement, diversity and soft skills

I’m so excited that I can barely spell correctly in writing this post.

I have the opportunity to visit a very very wonderful place, a city that have always dreamt of going to and a country that I’ve always wanted to visit: St Petersburg.

And the cherry on the cake is visiting Leuven in Belgium just before that.

At. St. Petersburg, the ITMO University is organizing a career development day focused on Women, and this is co-sponsored by the IEEE Photonics Society, Women in Photonics. Events will focus soft skills: communication, presentation, writing, networking as well as career advice.

Leuven has a PhD development day which includes talks on networking and why that is important.

Learning the skills that are not taught in any technical course such as the ones above, are critical to career success and personal development. It helps that professional bodies and universities are now working with staff and students on these. Focusing on specific challenges faced by women/minority groups can additionally enrich our profession by retaining and supporting the best talent.

Not to mention that in the process one may get to go to wonderful places!

Just waiting now for my visa- wish me luck!

Of PhD theses

Some years ago I was writing my PhD thesis and today my student is writing his. Not only that I’m at this point examining the PhD theses of students from other universities.

What a big change it is from being a candidate  to being a supervisor or examiner!

All these three things are related and yet completely different.

"My doctoral thesis looks like a fake? Scandalous! I'll have a word with the bloke I bought it from!"

Cartoon on PhD thesis


As a student my worries were about trying to finish on time, producing something that my supervisor would find acceptable and then stressing about the viva-voce. I did not realise it at the time but a lot of the responsibility for successful completion of the PhD lay with my supervisor. I would often give him my results or work and then rest easy that his judgement would be sufficient. It did not occur to me at that time that it would’ve placed a certain burden on him, all that his judgement (given that all judgements are subjective) not be in agreement with that of  reviewers of a paper or a PhD examiner.

Those were the days of mental freedom and relative lack of worry.

As a supervisor suddenly the table has turned!

Now it’s my job to make sure that My PhD student’s thesis meets certain standards. So now I spend hours reading draft after draft, giving extensive and detailed comments on how to improve the chapter that I’m reading. Additionally I stress about preparing the student for their viva examination or thesis defence: Will they be able to answer the questions ask ed by the examiner? Is their knowledge of the literature and state-of-the-art sufficient? Is their command of the basic concepts sufficiently strong? Will they be able to control their nervousness?

In some ways you could say this experience is more nerve wracking than that of being a PhD student.

And when I think about being an examiner this is an entirely different ballgame.

Now from the piece of work in front of you (a thesis) one has to make a decision whether the work presented is of the standard expected for a PhD: the results and/or techniques presented amount to a novel and significant contribution to the scientific community. It is no longer about just judging the excellence after work. One has to read the thesis to see whether the basics are presented insufficient detail (including for example a literature survey) that convinces one as an examiner that the student understands the basics and has sufficient scientific knowledge of the field. In the final defence one would also have to ascertain the degree of independence the student has displayed in completing the work.

On one hand are the quality considerations (that as an examiner you judge whether the University regulations for the award of the degree are being met). On the other hand are people considerations. How do you discount for the nervousness of the student? How well can you really judge whether the student has led the work or it’s been led by the supervisor? If unfortunately the student doesn’t answer questions as well as one would like, does it mean the student doesn’t deserve a PhD (given the body of work presented in the thesis)? You realise that it is someone’s career at stake and your judgement has a huge impact on then.

It is a huge responsibility.

There is also the matter of your own personal reputation. Are you being fair, objective and technically sound in your judgement? Even if you have been all of these things are you been perceived in this way? If a situation arises with the student have you handled it in the best possible way that satisfies the regulations and is humane and considerate?

I always thought it was easy to sit in the chair of the examiner. I am now finding that it is perhaps the most difficult position to be in.

If you have any thoughts do let me know.





























Workshops with a difference

Small workshops and conferences are fun!

When the speakers come from fields very different from you own, the fun quotient seems to increase even more.

This was reinforced for me at the recent workshop on Biomimetics held at Imperial College. Getting to hear talks from chemists, biologists, zoologists,  physicists and engineers on talks that had one primary connection: bio-inspiration or bio-mimicry was really interesting.

Animals that prey tend to have slit pupils as opposed to round pupils for animals that don’t prey. Connect that to design of optical systems, computer vision and algorithms!

Or think of how colour originates from arrangement of butterfly wing scales because of wave interference effects rather than pigments. Now use this for colour that doesn’t fade.

It helped that I had the opportunity to invite some speakers I really wanted to hear as a co-oganiser!

Another thing I like about smaller events is the informal nature: fewer people and enough time provides space for meaningful interaction. The atmosphere is intimate and relaxed. Spending a day (or two) with a small group helps foster interaction.

Next time I’ll blog about another smaller workshop that I enjoyed in Delhi.

Cheers till then!

The graveyard shift

Most of us in academia have been there: having to give a talk in the last session on that last day of the conference, aka the graveyard shift.

If you have attended even 2 (such a significant sample statistically!) conferences you would see the drastic drop off in attendee numbers by the last day. The number of people attending the very last session can possibly be counted on the fingers of 2 hands, or even just the one.



When my talk is scheduled for the graveyard shift it produces a mixture of emotions in me: annoyance and relief.

Before the event the annoyance is because it means I will have to stay till the last session and no skulking off early to save hotel expenses for a night; or traipsing around town sightseeing. I feel stressed about the upcoming presentation and the need to keep improving it till the last possible minute. A sure-fire fun busting mechanism!

The relief contradictorily comes from preparing a fantastic presentation for a very small audience (I hope). Simply because it will mean fewer awkward questions and the nervousness I feel will be so much lesser if I am confronting only empty seats and not a room full of leading lights in the field.

Once the adrenaline of making the presentation wears off the real aggravation however sets in!

I think: “Honestly I spent all that money, traveled so far and worked so hard to present just to the person chairing the session, and maybe 4 others 2 of whom were anxious speakers, one attendee who was texting the whole time and the   other who slept through my operatic performance”!

It can be a real downer to see no one there to hear you pour out your passion on research you love.

The impact of the presentation and my work is lost as virtually no one heard it. I didn’t get a chance to discuss it or get feedback from other people working on similar things. All my hard work seems devalued somehow.

So how does one deal with the graveyard shift?

I have tried some of the following with mixed success:

  • Prepare my presentation to the best of my ability in advance and NOT keep improving it till the last second. This removes the metaphorical chain that ties me to my hotel desk and allows me to have some fun (sightseeing, local food, shopping, meeting people) while still being professional.
  • Advertising the talk to people I met in the early part of the conference can be helpful. Not all of them will come for my talk of course, but some might if our discussion was interesting to them.
  • Not taking it personally: I have to remind myself that the organisers don’t hate me and nor do the other attendees. Someone has to be in the graveyard shift, so this time I drew the short straw.

Personally I have some ideas for organisers to avoid graveyard shifts:

  • keeping a dinner/social event after the last session to incentivize people to stay
  • have something similar to keynote/plenary talk at the end
  • have an awards session at the end

Till such time as attendees continue to decamp before the last session, we need ways to survive graveyard shifts.

What are your thoughts?



By artiagrawal Posted in General

Some more student success

Success is always sweet. The success of one’s students is even sweeter!

I have the pleasure of co-supervising a very capable young man called Souvik Ghosh, who has recently won the best oral presentation award at Photonics 16 conference in the Photonics Modelling/Quantum Optics category.

To win such a prestigious award at an international conference is a big feat.  Certainly I am almost as proud as Souvik is.

You can see the paper that won him the award here: souvik_photonics-2016.