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





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!

Royal Society Athena Prize for Equality

The inaugural Royal Society Athena Prize 2016 recognises individuals and teams in the UK research community who have contributed towards the advancement of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in their institutions and organisations.

This year I am really thrilled to say my Research Centre, was awarded a runners up prize!You can read more on this here.

The Centre was cited as ‘acting as a role model for inclusiveness by promoting good practice and addressing cultural barriers both nationally and internationally’

The Royal Society Athena Prize 2016, comprising a medal and a £5k gift, was awarded to the London Mathematics Society’s Women in Mathematics Committee, recognised for introducing a broad range of initiatives in the field of mathematics resulting in a change of culture that has happened nationwide in mathematics.

These initiatives are important to draw attention and effort from the scientific community towards equality and diversity.

If only there was a prize for equal pay too!

Sunday at IEEE Photonics Conference

As I arrived slightly jet lagged and tired for the IEEE Photonics Conference (IPC) I was also a little disgruntled that my favourite shoe shop was far from the hotel.

Not a good start I thought.

But all the cobwebs and irritation was blown away.

The Photonics Pro Training session was mindblowing!

The first talk by Elizabeth Lions on leadership made me ask my self what leadership meant to me, why I or anyone wants to be a leader and how to go about leading. The second talk by Prof. Ben Eggleton carried forward with the theme of leadership and he talked about his career path, the challenges he faced and how he achieved his success.

The IEEE Photonics Society plans to have more such sessions on career development in future conferences to help students and young professionals in the field to gain skills they need to succeed. Judging by the number of people in the room and the age distribution, it seems it is not only young people who want such discussions!

This session was followed by a Women in Photonics panel, where 5 women from diverse research areas, form industry and academia, talked about their career paths. They answered questions from the audience and in a very frank and honest manner gave their take on how to be successful and overcome the challenges they faced. These included hilarious things like a career advisor showing detailed reports to a panelists’s parents on how few women succeed in Science and Engineering to deter her from continuing her studies as an engineer!

Their 5 word advice to young people was:

  • don’t the sweat the small stuff
  • don’t give up
  • follow your passion
  • don’t be hard on yourself
  • believe in yourself

It was interesting that almost all the panelists’s parents had wanted them to be doctors and their choice of Photonics was unexpected to their families.

I am looking forward to Monday now!

CLEO 2015: a great few days!

While the Californian weather was chillier than expected the conference and people were as warm as ever.

I spent last week at CLEO 2015 in San Jose and had a marvellous time. Ruminating on the conference these were the highlights for me:

The plenary sessions included talks by Nobel Prize winners like Shuji Nakamura who helped solve the issues with blue-green LED/laser. One plenary in particular really caught my fancy: “Light’s twist” by Miles Padgett of University of Glasgow. Some of the things he talked about : the orbital angular momentum of light having helical phase fronts which are not be confused with circularly polarised light were fascinating. The fact that unlike the linear Doppler effect, orbital angular momentum would impart the same frequency shift irrespective of the frequency of the light wave was new to me, but when you think about it makes perfect sense. Perhaps the most thought provoking idea was that it is transverse boundary conditions/limitations on the extent of the light beam that lead to the beams such as Airy and Bessel beams, and a waveguide per se is not required. I need to go away and do a lot of reading, but I am excited!

In the “Modes in Fiber” session the talks covered large mode area fiber designs, as well as fabrication, and went on to some very interesting new ideas on quantum walks in multi core fibers. Large mode area fibers, as a member of the audience pointed out is not a new born field and there are several designs out there. So what makes a design worthy of attention? I think one of the authors answered this very well in his presentation, SM2L.2, when Deepak Jain spoke of the three factors that are key:

  • the metric used to decide what effective single moded operation
  • loss of the fundamental mode
  • the effective radius or area at which bend loss becomes large

This discussion particularly interested me because it is this sort of perspective setting that is so important for good research. At times one can get lost in the virtual forest of journal and conference papers each of which announce a slightly (or hugely) better performance. Yet what is the process for determining which design is really best and will perhaps become the industry standard? This is where conferences like CLEO that bring members of the community together can help find the answers or set people on the path!

Undoubtedly the most exciting talk of the session was SM2L.4 by Peter Mosley from Bath. He showed some exciting simulation and experimental results for multicore fibers, whose propagation constant differences were reconstructed by a Markov chain Monte Carlo simulation, a statistical approach. The striking thing was the difference between the classical behavior one might see (when a particle moves through an array with equal probability of moving left or right) and the non-classical behavior they demonstrated for a photon between coupled.

To me the highlight of Tuesday was the Women in Photonics Lunch that had two very high profile speakers: Prof. Michal Lipson of Cornell University and Dr. Hong Liu, principle engineer at Google Technical Infrastructure. These ladies gave very frank and honest insights into their career paths, the challenges they have faced specific to them being female and their advice for women in general.

When Michal said that people at times assume she works for Alex Gaeta, her husband and also a professor at Cornell, but never the other way round, it produced a wave of a laughter and nods of recognition at what so many women face: being talked over at meetings, being mistaken for the secretary etc. The sub-text or unspoken messages that women are given, of their careers being secondary to their male partner’s or colleagues were all realities that many present in the room could empathise with and perhaps you can too as you read it.

Their advice which works for both women and men contained some real nuggets. For example, “don’t put yourself down because the people around you do that to you”. This action of not internalizing the negative messages from those around us sounds very simple but can be very profound. They also advised everyone to set a high personal standard for oneself. Achieving to a high standard then means we feel more confident and feel we belong and deserve the success that we will hopefully achieve!

I cant end the post without talking a little bit about the great talk by Ayman Abouraddy from CREOL, Florida, who gave an invited talk Wednesday morning. He discussed in a very simple and engaging manner the challenges with making multimaterial chalcogenide fibers. He then went on to explain how using polymers in the process his group had overcome these challenges to fabricate  large index difference, small diameter, robust fibers with low bend loss. It wasn’t that the Science being explained was necessarily completely new to me, but a good review of the field coupled with very accessible explanations of the challenges and their solutions was valuable. A 30 minute talk allowed me to walk away feeling I have a good handle on the latest on the field of mid IR fibers. So time well spent!

Now that I am back in London, I am hitting the papers hard and hope to use my time at CLEO well, and planning for next year’s CLEO.

Wow: first female director of CERN!

I dont know how many girls (or boys) grow up thinking that one day they could lead an organisation like CERN. Dr. Fabiola Gianotti has been chosen to lead CERN from January 2016 for 5 years as the Director General.

This is absolutely fabulous and I could not not blog about it!

You can read more here and here.

All set and ready to go!

Today or shall I say tonight is the big night!

A high profile launch of the Women in Photonics (WiP) initiative of the IEEE Photonics Society at the IEEE Photonics Conference in San Diego. As the AVP of the Women in Photonics, I will be a co-host of the reception, standing next to the society president, Dalma Novak, and giving a small presentation.

This is a big deal for many reasons:
– reception will have 100+ people
– getting people on board for WiP, and that includes men
– creating the strategy for WiP that will really make a difference
– implementing this strategy with the help of the many volunteers we are looking for

This initiative is very close to my heart, because it gives me the platform to do something about improving the lot of women in STEM as opposed to simply thinking and talking about it.

Each one of us man or woman, from a developing or developed country, have been lucky recipients of the work done by our predecessors in the opportunities and freedom we have. In our small way it is important we contribute to a legacy for our successors as well!

International Womens day

International womens’ day comes about in March every year and much like many years there has been a bit of hype around it. The occasion is used by various womens’ organisations, policy makers, governments, to raise awareness of issues connected to women. The media is an important component in this ever growing do. And commerce is never far behind in exploiting every possible opportunity (behold the offers to women in shops: shop for more than x amount and get 10% discount. Never mind taht the amount you need to purchase is huge and the discount is measly)!cartoon on womens equality

For the scientific community does this day have relevance?
The answer is yes. The so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields historically right up to this day have a massive under representation of women. Plenty has been written about this gap and for some years there have been attempts to address it. Groups like MWOSA are testament to this.

In this article I want to address what I see happening in the future that can make a positive change as well as what all of us can do.

Celebrating female successes and creating role models is becoming a big part of the prevalent thinking. We will see more and more that groups (MWOSA, IEEE Women in Photonics, Women in Physics) and many others bring to the fore the achievements of their female members (through award ceremonies, magazine articles) . This explicit recognition and celebration of successful women scientists will also go towards showcasing them as role models to younger women and girls. For example, check out the We the Geeks Google Hangout series at the White House which celebrate some very cool women role models.

Womens’ networks are getting a boost. The power of networks in helping members make connections (to get that job or promotion or new project) is widely recognised. Traditionally women tend to have narrow but deep networks (compared to male counterparts who on average have wide but shallow networks) and may often hesitate to ask for help unless they know a person very well. Increased training and awareness in all female networks are catering to some of the specific behavioural styles women have.

Is there something that we can do as individuals?

Research has shown that women are also prone to unconscious bias like men. Therefore when it comes to interviewing candidates, peer reviewing proposals and papers, women and men, both unconsciously (where direct prejudice is absent) tend to favour male candidates. Even when the gender is unknown, a name that seems “male” tends to get higher approval. Our understanding of unconscious bias is now better.

So one thing that each one of us can do is to introspect and perhaps take tests like (the Implicit Association Test) to check our own tendency towards unconscious bias and eliminate it.

Another perhaps an even more powerful strength we all have is our voices. As members of OSA and other technical bodies we can volunteer in outreach efforts to young girls, it is possible to act as mentors to younger members, and also to ask the society to prioritise equality in its policy.

Many large corporations and businesses now train their recruitment managers on unconscious bias and treat it as a serious issue. They do not want to lose good talent because of such bias. In addition there has been discussion on creating quotas for women in boards of businesses. Some countries like Norway have implemented it while in others targets have been set for businesses. The point is that the business world and policy makers are addressing the under representation of women at the top level. Talent and ability are just as important here as in STEM, so the solutions being looked at do not compromise on quality.

Scientific bodies, research institutions and higher education bodies have not yet set targets (for female representation) or openly discussed quotas. Perhaps these can be thought of in different forms: gender balanced editorial boards for journals, conference committees etc. As members we can contribute to this debate and bring it to centre stage.

OSA and IEEE Photonics are in many ways trend setters: with OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan and the immediate past president of OSA, Donna Strickland, Dalma Novak the President of the IEEE Photonics Society all being female, this sends a powerful message to all the young women in Optics: you can get to the top.

Balancing the STEM equation

This latest short film/documentary (A chemical imbalance) from a group of 5 chemistry professors at University of Edinburgh, Prof. Polly Arnold and colleagues, again brings up the issue of such few women in STEM especially at higher levels.

Also read this article about why there are such few female VC’s (in the UK) on the Times Higher Education website.

We need a change. That has been said many time by many people. Yet the change in not really coming through. What is the bottleneck?
I think that even now not everyone fully apprecaites the value of gender balanced departments, management teams and leadership in academia. Several research studies have shown that gender balanced teams out perform teams that are predominantly male/female. So why does this not permeate into STEM leadership?

One thing that I have seen cause some change is the decision of certain research councils to refuse to accept grant proposals from universities that are not signed up to the Athena Swan charter. This suddenly prompted several universities to start applying for membership and Athena Swan awards, while also (hopefully) improving things for female academic staff in their STEM departments.

Perhaps we need more funding bodies (read all government funded grants) to require that institutes demonstrate real committment to equality for women, in order to be eligible for any research and even teaching related funds.

We also need effective tools to measure this. Mere box ticking exercises that dont engender positive change really need to be on their way out.