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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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Lunch with the chapter officers and speakers

(www.crossint.eu) 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!

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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

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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!