If only… grad school taught this stuff too!

As I went through the online course on Negotiation Skills on the Nelson Croom website using my Institute of Physics membership my

mind wandered a bit, and this post is the result.

Grad school taught me about science, research, patience (PhD comics got it right!), writing papers,   and to some extent for the transition from PhD student to member of the workforce: preparing my CV, covering letters for jobs and making presentatiSoft skills diagramons. So when I joined my job as a lecturer, I felt that my training at grad school and subsequent experience as a post-doc had prepared me for professional life as an academic.

And was I misinformed!

The skills I now have to call upon were not taught to me, and I find that at times I am blindsided when professional life rudely makes demands on me that my carefully scripted student career did not anticipate.

In the grownup world (and I talk more of academia here)  a big part of the job is about winning friends and influencing people. One has to:

– Persuade and influence people: Managers/Heads/Deans to allocate lab space for you, give you funds to pay PhD studentships, money to attend conferences, paid training courses, budgets to publish in Open Access journals, buy equipment… and these people holding the purse-strings are always besieged with demands from many others like us.

– Negotiate with people: about teaching loads, administration workload, salary increases, promotions

–  Manage complex work relationships at many levels: with colleagues, students, peers, superiors, suppliers, vendors, administrative staff, and many more. People are rarely identical to oneself and as a typical geek I had no idea (what something like the MBTI meant and) how to manage successful working relationships with people who initially drove me mad because their behaviour was so unfathomable to me.

– Manage my lab: in hiring people suddenly I needed to know about Equality and Diversity regulations, about Health and Safety regulations, how to carry out risk assessment, how to appraise my staff, in fact how to function as though I had run a lab for years and years!

–  Balance more than one demanding job: I could as a post-doc work on several research projects and even throw in a little bit of teaching. But now added to the mix were administrative work in the department and loads of related meetings, mountains of paperwork, responsibility for all the people in my lab (post-docs and PhD students);  financial considerations to keep my lab running, reviewing papers for journals, getting involved with more colleagues and contributing at the bigger level of the University and not just my individual PhD/research.

– Say no without offending: as a person I find it hard to say no to people and as a result I take on more and more till I drive myself into the ground. Some people can take advantage of this, others see it as poor assertive skills on my part. Apparently one can even learn to deal with such situations and say no without always causing hurt or offence. It simplifies life a lot when it works!Cartoon on best employee

These skills are obviously not confined to a single profession or even professional life alone. We need them in every sphere of life.

Everyone knows those people who never seem to get cross or argue and whom everyone seems to listen to, while we struggle to make people understand something so logical anyone can and should be able to see it. While these people network effortlessly and happily, we struggle to introduce ourselves to people. While they seem to get lower workloads than us we get told off for not working as hard as them!

How do they do it?

Apart from some innate talent, I think a lot of it is learning. We can learn many of these skills or at least gain some modicum through practice.

Which is why I am investing the time in myself to try and learn from different sources, the skills that are part of daily life that did not fit my curriculum in school all those years ago!


An ode to Cosmos and the difficult art of Science shows on TV

As a teenager in India, when I first saw the TV series Cosmos by cosmos: front coverCarl Sagan in the 1980s, I was enchanted, entranced and hooked. I loved every single minute of the broadcasts, found the material covered fascinating. It inspired me! Today I am a scientist and have to say that the show played a part in making Science appealing and sexy.

Some facts about Cosmos show that I wasn’t the only one spellbound: Cosmos won an Emmy and a Peabody award, it has been seen by more than 500 million people worldwide, is the most widely seen PBS TV series in the world broadcast in over 60 countries.

In my memory the show is perfect- the level at which it was pitched, the presentation style, the production values… all of it. In reality, it probably wasn’t perfect, just a damn good show.

I rejoice that there are shows on Science and Nature, on the other hand when I see some of these TV shows relating to Science aired now, I find that they simply don’t make the same impact (on me).

 –          The content and level seem unsuited to any age.

a)     Take for example the Horizon programme on the Higgs boson which aired in Feb 2012. The subject was marvelously topical and relevant, the presenters interviewed scientists at CERN and communicated very effectively the excitement relating to the Higgs. However, the show spent literally 2-3 minutes explaining what the Higgs boson is and in scientific terms what it means (apart from repeating that it would re-write Physics text books). In my view the show failed to explain to the public in any term what the Higgs boson is- a real pity.

b)     Another example, is the History of Maths series on the BBC that aired in March 2012. The work of some incredible scientists was featured and the romance attached to this was brought out to some extent. However, even with a PhD in Physics and some knowledge in Mathematics, it was not possible to understand the gist of any single piece of work mentioned. The worst aspect was that my friend who is not a scientist, turned to her novel after 10 minutes of watching, and later said: “it seems all mathematicians are either mad or go mad. Why would this attract anyone to be a mathematician”. Why indeed? Furthermore, unwittingly and probably unintentionally the programme seemed to communicate that individuals who are exceptionally gifted with mathematical talent and great intellect can be mathematicians. Giving rise to some speculation that if one is a young kid who isn’t considered exceptionally gifted, he/she needn’t bother thinking of a career in mathematics. Is that what popular Science shows should be communicating to young people?

–            The presentation style seems to be stuck in a time warp: narrator with hair flopping in the wind, travelling from one picturesque location to another, pausing to explain a scientific idea or claim and walking away while the camera pans to show us the scenic view- see some of Brian Cox’s shows. In all these years, have producers, artistic directors, writers, special effects wizards and all those who work in TV, not come up with any new formats for science shows? Are we to watch this style that has frankly been overused till boredom causes us to switch to the XFactor or Downton Abbey?

Regarding the above I must say that I have the greatest professional respect for the scientists such as Marcus du Sautoy, Brain Cox, Jim AlKhalili who are brilliant. I just feel the programmes could have been better.

In the above I have only mentioned shows that have won some acclaim and considered to be at least scientifically fairly accurate. I haven’t even touched on the shows where scientific authenticity is questionable. Furthermore, I wonder how many of these shows have a global audience? Science is universal and it can interest children, young people and adults anywhere in the world. Are these shows resonating with people the world over the way Cosmos did?

My opinions above may seem extreme, they are in fact borne of great agitation. I love Science and I really enjoy watching good shows on Science. I wait for them eagerly, anticipating something that will inspire and excite me. So, when the shows fail (to do that for me), I feel very disappointed and let down.

Another consideration is that the art of making documentaries is evolving too, combining technical prowess with artistic flair. There are many engrossing programmes from different disciplines. The best example is a brilliant documentary film of 2010, Nostalgia for the Light by the exiled Chilean film maker, Patricio Guzmán which brings together some very unlikely threads: Astronomers’ search for the origin of life through telescopes in Chile’s Atacama desert and the women still searching for the remains of their loved ones who dissappeared during Pinochet’s regime. This film is incredibly creative and beautiful, juxtaposing ideas in a thought provoking way I had never imagined. David Attenborough has presented many of the best loved Natural History programmes; Michael Moore’sBowling For Columbine”, is effective in exploring post 9/11 America even if it obviously plays to the gallery; Terry Pratchett’sLiving with Alzheimer’s”, is a thoughtful and moving reflection on the effects of living with Alzheimer’s.

Coming back to Science shows, obviously, some of the shows may not be pitched to someone my age, and hence I am not the target audience. This could explain why they fail to engage me. But I am loath to think that a programme produced by the highly acclaimed Horizon team at BBC, cant produce something decent for the average adult in the UK.

Why this rant?

If Cosmos could engage and inspire generations into Science globally in ‘80s can we not produce something with similar effect now?

The magic of Equiangular Spirals

In this series of posts I’ll be writing in more detail about the spiral PCF that I enjoy working on. An introduction and overview on spiral PCF can be found on the My Research page.

So, back to Equiangular Spiral PCF or ES-PCF

schematic of an equiangular spiral curve

Fig. 1: Schematic of an equiangular spiral curve

Equiangular spirals or logarithmic spirals are self similar curves: as the curve grows, the shape remains unchanged. We see them in nature in snails, shells, plants, galaxies and in many other places.

How is the ES design adapted for PCF?

The ES curve grows continuously and is defined by the equation: equiangular spiral equation


definiton of alpha

and θ is the angle between the radius of the ES and tangent at the end point of the radius; rspiral is the distance at any point along the spiral arm from the centre of the structure.

To adapt the design for a PCF, we choose the parameters, ro,, θ , which decide where the air holes will fall (alo

Fig. 2: schematic of the ES-PCF

Fig. 2: schematic of the ES-PCF

ng the ES curve). Several such independent ES patterns of holes can be arranged around a central core to form a cladding with microstructure of air holes. The average refractive index in the cladding  region is lower than the core, similar to standard PCF, and hence Total Internal Reflection (TIR) is the guiding mechanism for light. The cross section of an ES-PCF can be seen in fig. 2.

What makes the ES-PCF so unique and useful?

A number of things:

a) The number of parameters to play around with and optimize performance is bigger than most traditional PCF. We can change the number of ES arms, number of holes per arm, the radius of the arm, angular increment and finally air hole radius.

b) The air holes in the second ring are closer to the core than in a traditional Hexagonal PCF. For the same distance from origin to centre of first air hole (ro), in the ES-PCF the centre of the air holes in the 2nd ring are roughly 0.45 ro away from 1st ring, while this distance is about 0.87 ro  or Hex PCF (see Fig. 3). This means the optical field can be squeezed more tightly into the core by the air

Fig.3: Schematic of the Hexagonal PCF
Fig.3: Schematic of the Hexagonal PCF

holes resulting in properties such as large non-linearity.

What does this give us?

Just be squeezing the field more effectively into the core, we can significantly improve modal properties:

1)      Higher non-linearity (see

2)      Lower bending loss

3)      Flat dispersion

4)      Ability to optimize performance over more than 1 parameter simultaneously

What is the catch?

The catch is that such designs have not been made yet. Feasible fabrication remains the biggest stumbling block for such quasi-crystal designs.

Is there a solution?

Yes. Techniques such as extrusion or drilling can be used to make unconventional PCF designs, so these offer one possibility. Another is to adapt the ‘stack and draw’ technique which is primarily used for hexagonal PCF. In another post I’ll explore how some very elegant mathematics gives us a way to do the latter.

Paid Access journals: some thoughts

In a recent post (Open Access: needs more work!) I wrote on how Article Publishing Charges (APC) can hinder equality in the gold route of OA publishing.

Today, I want to discuss the paid access traditional journals and publishers.

The boycott of Elsevier highlighted like nothing else the downsides of the business model employed by many professional publishers. I list only a few below:

–          Using Government/taxpayer funded research to generate profit without contributing to research funding

–          No sharing of revenues with authors

–          Not paying the reviewers members of editorial work for their labour

–          Bundling of several journals and selling journal access at very high prices

Yet I argue that these journals and publishers have an important role and place in academic publishing in the future, provided they make some key changes (given later).


Well, here are some reasons:

–          Some journals have been established for decades and are well recognized. There is benefit to authors by publishing (citation, impact, recognition, prestige) and to readers as they feel the quality of work is good.

–          It takes a long time and a lot of resource to establish a new journal, and so should we neglect what has been built over the years, if it can be adapted?

–          OA (gold route) shifts the cost burden entirely onto authors via APCs- pricing out some authors, see Open Access: needs more work! while traditional subscription-based journals put the entire cost burden onto readers, allowing authors (even those that are resource-strapped) to publish in good journals. (Caveat: these may increasingly have lower citation rates and impact factors than the top OA journals)

–          Membership of editorial boards of such journals is a factor in success with promotions, jobs and grant applications; it is a marker of seniority in the profession.

So clearly the gold OA (authors pay all) and traditional journal publishing model (reader pay all) are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Each has its benefits and problems. I think we need journals from both business models to meet the diverse needs of a global research community.

However, the ‘reader pay all’ or traditional model needs changes to survive and thrive in the advent of OA.

What changes would I suggest?

–          Charge for individual journals rather than bundles, with a sensible pricing model

–          Pay editors and reviewers fairly for their work

–          Share revenue with authors: for example, after each year work out the profit a journal has made and share a percentage of the profit with authors (profit/number of articles)

In addition, by revenue sharing these publishers will incentivize authors and the larger academic community to continue reading, publishing and reviewing articles for their journals.

While this will obviously reduce the profit to publishers and their shareholders, it will perhaps make them sustainable. Sustainability and survival, in my view, make a sufficiently strong business case for change.

All of the above will no doubt be hideously complicated and perhaps not implementable in form suggested. I hope though, that it leads people to propose improvements that are indeed feasible.

The Technology of Teaching

surviving as a teacherWhy teaching is something one can and should learn!

As a young academic with a predominantly research focus, when I was asked to lecture at the University, the opportunity created a perfect storm of feelings in me. I was terrified about how I would teach, groaned at the amount of work it entailed, cross because it would mean time away from research, and excited because I recalled some of my favourite teachers.

I realised that despite all my misgivings, I wanted my students to like me and enjoy my classes.

Yet, as a newbie teacher in the classroom, I found that it was every bit as difficult though in unexpected ways, every bit as terrifying and the rewards were unpredictable and irregular at best.

The classroom in the University I think is significantly different from that in high school.
At University, one can expect to

–          Lecture to much larger classes (even upto 300!)

–          Lecture to students from different educational backgrounds, levels of ability and learning style. This is hard as some students will not have knowledge you think essential, while others are more advanced. Some are used to a lot of instruction, while others prefer independence.

–          Have a very culturally diverse audience: I had some visiting students from China who needed translators in class, along with students whose native language was English! While my English students would use my first name to talk to me, the Chinese students were extremely shy and afraid of giving offense by asking questions in class.

–          Prepare extensive material even for non attendees. I found that students and the University expected me to put up all my lecture slides and handouts online for students to download. This meant extensive preparation as well as organisation much ahead of teaching. In addition, as attendance is not compulsory, students expect to be able to pass/do well through self study of these materials, without attending class.

–          Deal with difficult students. I was quite unprepared and taken aback to find students at University, who were paying high fees for studies that are not compulsory, yet they were not motivated to be there. There can be a small minority of such individuals in any class.

Some aspects of teaching are probably universal (and challenging) at all levels of education:

–          Learning culture. Some of my students were strategic learners, mostly interested in activities (tutorials, labs, coursework) if these carried weight towards their final grade. Very few wanted to learn independent of grades – or so it seemed to me.

–          Engaging and motivating students. How does one engage an entire class all with very different temperaments and interest. How does one motivate these different personalities?

–          Discipline. How do you engage the disruptive students?

–          Assessment. How do you come up with a system that can fairly and objectively assess each student and provide feedback that aids the development of the student?

I could go on, but suffice it to say, teaching is challenging.

However, as teaching is an integral part of most academic careers, there are excellent reasons why every academic could benefit from doing it well.

I think the ability to teach really well is a gift, a talent. And not everyone is born with it.

These people who can instinctively pause when students would like them to, or explain complicated concepts in simple and easy to understand ways. They know when their students don’t understand something. They know how to give just enough time to attempt a question, when to start, when to stop. They know how to engage!

For those of us not born with this gift or vocation, the idea of facing a few hundred students, waiting like hungry lions to devour our fearful attempts at introducing Discrete Fourier Transform, is not an enticing prospect.

So what can we do?

Well, innate talent aside, there is help out there.

Many universities offer courses on Academic Practice, that deal with various aspects of teaching: theories on learning and teaching in higher education, curriculum development, assessment, creating group work, teaching techniques, design of learning environments, exploring the potential of learning design in different contexts, for example, in face to face, e-learning, distance learning, and the possibilities offered by a wide range of media and digital applications, such as Web 2.0, social networking, blogs and wikis..

I went on a two-day teaching workshop where we were taught about how to design lectures, including preparing slides, handouts, assignments etc. We practised giving lectures that were video recorded and played back to us. With feedback on very practical issues, we could see how we appeared to students: were our voices carrying across the room, when we wrote on the board was it legible, did we fidget and appear nervous, did we talk too fast or too softly?

Many professional bodies and technical societies also have learning and teaching resources for educators (high school teachers, lecturers, etc.). Usually the resources will be subject specific and thus can be a great place to find material, teaching tip and activities for your course/area. They can often suggest both individual projects and group activities/projects for different ability levels.

There is also support from experts who specialise in E-learning, Learning Success, Learning and Development. These people develop, research and practise the latest techniques in teaching and learning. Many such techniques reflect the new technology that students enjoy using and the social norms that prevail. Inputs from these sources can make a big difference in engaging students.

Consider this example: I found that my class was not solving tutorial questions and no amount of exhortation could convince them. The Learning Development Centre team suggested to me that I divide the class into groups, and assign tutorial questions to each group. Subsequently each group would have to solve a question on the board before the entire class, and each group had to prepare a question to challenge other groups, with the best question winning. Peer pressure and some healthy competition would achieve what pressure from the teacher may not be able to.

So while one may not have ‘the gift’, one can learn techniques that can at the very least make one reasonably competent as a teacher. With practise of these techniques and lots of hard work and sweat one might dream of becoming a ‘good teacher’.

As for the rewards:

Well, my lecture today was a joy. While I taught, my class was attentive (no yawning, texting, talking…). They asked me questions, they responded when I asked them questions. They laughed at my jokes. They pulled my leg and seemed to enjoy the lecture.

I was walking on air! I hope the next class will be as much fun (yes, fun).

Open Access: needs more work!

Open Access (OA) journals have made a massive impact in the world of academic publishing. A handful of such journals has grown into a massive range.open access

Much has been written about OA, the gold(authors pay the publication charges for their articles which are free to download) and green (authors can place a copy of their articles in pre-print or post-print format in online repositories operated by their universities or databases such as Arxiv, see more on the Romeo project) routes (see also Open access funding models), its power and the boycott of established publishers such as Elsevier, the Finch report  and much more, see (OASIS, We neet to talk about kevin , er, open access etc.

Clearly OA is here to stay and has a lot of power- on average open-access articles are cited 176% more often than print/paid-subscription articles (see for example, bibliography on studies on impact of open access, Swan 2010). Is it then the path to information for all, the true access to knowledge for all?

At this point it is also worth mentioning that there are some very big discipline specific factors that affect OA journals. There are reports that compare Humanities and Social Sciences and Science (HSS) with Science, Technology and Medicine (STM) journals see for example this link.

I believe that open access to research is part of the story, not all of it.

The debate on OA has focused a lot (especially with regards to STM journals) on the benefits to readers. Implicit in this is the assumption that all authors have equal access to publication in OA journals[1].

I want to discuss this assumption.

As the number of open access journals, the frequency of issues and number of articles increase, the net effect is a massive information deluge that a reader cannot cope with. The result is that readers apply selection criteria to filter out and read some journals more regularly than others. Quality of articles, impact factors and citation rates influence the selection among other factors. Thus, not all quality work and journals get the same readership.

The knock-on effect is that authors increasingly want to publish in the journals that give their work the most impact. This means journals with higher citation rates and large impact factors, large readership, and strategic readers. The competition is for eyeballs and for article space in some of these highly prized open access journals.

This is where the issue of publication charges becomes crucial.

I take the example of my research area of Optics, in which the OA journals that figure in the top 20 (ranked by 5 year Impact Factor (IF)) are Optics Express (ranked 4 with 5 year IF=3.666), IEEE Photonics Journal (ranked 13 with IF=2.320), see Journal Citation reports. All the OA journals have publication charges. The minimum charges for Optics Express and IEEE Photonics Journal are over $1000 (see links to Optics Express publication fees, IEEE Photonics Journal charges).

Publication charges can price out researchers from

1. Individuals/small groups/universities with relatively modest funding

2. Researchers from poorer countries, currency conversion rates further exacerbate the pain

Though authors can still publish in the traditional journals that do not charge a publication fee and then make their work freely available through online repositories (the green route to OA), this has problems:

1. Difference in impact factors will still affect these authors when applying for grants, jobs, promotions etc., i.e. anything competitive where journal prestige and citations are important.

2. Its not completely certain their work will get the same attention (?)  (if published in a non OA journal).

Consider for example: Optics Express has a higher number of total cites (54094, ranked 2nd by number of cites for all Optics journals and 5th by 5year IF) than its much older and also very prestigious sister journal Optics Letters (ranked 3rd by total number of cited-45759, and 7th by 5 year IF), even though Optics Express is only in its 20th year, while Optics Letters is in its 37th year of publication. Source: Journal Citation reports from Web of Science, figures taken on 5th October 2012.

3. Not all institutions worldwide have online repositories, or all disciplines suitable online archives

Thus the gold route to OA where the burden of publication charges is borne solely by the authors can also lead to inequality: some can afford to publish in the best OA journals, while some cant!

Can we afford this sort of inequality in research? Do we want it?

If we cant read the interesting, novel, unique work done by talented people from diverse backgrounds the entire research community would be poorer. We would all suffer in that if the quality of what we read is not the best possible, our own output cannot be the best possible.

To me this suggests that OA needs more work for it to truly serve the research community. We need to find a way to distribute the publishing costs so that deserving authors are not priced out of publishing and readers are not (as a result priced out) of reading such work.

[1] On his website librarian Micah VanderGrift  quotes from a study by Suber and Sutton that 83% of OA journals by learned society publishers do not charge publication fees. This figure is an overview of OA journals across disciplines, hence the scenario could be very different for individual disciplines/areas.

Why I love my Librarian

….in a platonic way!

My blog is a result of my librarian’s influence- see my first post . And also that of the E-Learning Manager at the University.

I find that as an academic my work involves understanding, creating and reporting information. However, as a Physicist my training was focused (for good reason) on principles and techniques in Physics with logic and analysis forming a big part of the scientific approach.

Information specialists such as librarians and e-learning specialists look at information in a very different way. They are experts in how information can be obtained, filtered and communicated. They are aware of the latest media and techniques for information management.

My librarian, for example, helped me to learn and adopt the use of Refworks (a reference management software) in my writing. Now when writing papers, book chapters, grants etc. I use this tool that has simplified how I find, store and generate bibliographies. Its been a real boon!

Similarly, tools such as doodle, were suggested to me by Matt, the E-Learning specialist. Now when I have to schedule meetings with many people I use doodle polls to find convenient dates/times.

The next thing I plan to try is ‘Remember the Milk’ and IFTTT that I came across Matt’s blog.

IFTTT will help me to direct content to my kindle with minimum fuss and maximum reading ease and pleasure. I’ll report back on how I get on with RTM and IFTTT.

Meanwhile, I’d freely recommend everyone to get cosy with their information team!