The Diary of an academic nomad: saudades

Today I came across a Portuguese word that prompted me to write this post.

The word is saudades. I understand that  this is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. The Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo says it is: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

On a science (mostly) blog this may be an odd topic to write about but I feel more than many topics this is true for nomads, even academic ones. Or perhaps even more so for us who are meant to be only rational and scientific with little sentiment. Each time we move after having made a place home we embrace or succumb to this pleasure-pain. What keeps us moving is often prosaic (making ends meet, career advancement) and at times deeper (the restless need to explore something new).

Today I miss London so much it is almost a  physical ache – I can barely look anywhere or at anything without it reminding me of London. Why can we not live in two places at once? Why this pain of having to choose?

What will happen if ever I could go on space travel- how much would I miss all the places on Earth? Would I be able to live for saudades?

To make this separation more bearable or to make Sydney more my home I am trying to start a local section of OSA with some colleagues drawn from various institutions across Sydney. It is of no particular surprise to me that most of us have come to Sydney from other parts of the world. Although our explicitly stated objectives and intentions in forming the section are professional and scientific, I think somewhere the truth of it includes trying to recreate that which we are nostalgic for- a piece of our history even.

It is lovely that Science is the form by which we try and find those connections with our own lives.

Have you felt this way ever?


A roundup for CLEO 2018

Here I am on Friday afternoon after CLEO 2018 with a mini roundup.

It’s been a great week with some surprises that I especially enjoyed.

So first my favourite talks:

The plenary talks by Nader Engheta on metaphotonics was very good. I loved it also because it is so refreshing to see someone talking about theoretical and simulation related work at the highest level. The idea that we could use metamaterials to solve integral equations tickled my fancy!

There were two delightful plenaries by Dr. Sara Seagar and the Nobel Prize winner of 2006 for his work on the COBE satellite and Cosmic MicroWave Background (CMB) measurement, Dr. John Mather, both that went into my special love: astrophysics. The first one was devoted to searching for exoplanets. Whilst the second gave a sort of tour of important astrophysical discoveries and focused on some major telescopes, including what is coming up with the James Webb telescope. So while I enjoyed both the talks, I also felt they were a little too generalist and not technical enough to satisfy my scientific appetite.

Other notable talks included in my opinion: A post deadline paper on generating combs for astrophotonics (JTh5A.1); another on generating higher THz harmonics in Graphene (JThA5.3).

The surprise for me were the special sessions organised by OSA technical groups. One was the round up of papers from across CLEO on non-linear optics. Papers were summarised and perspective on the work was given to contextualise the papers with what is happening in the rest of the field. The session was also a bit more informal and interactive. I think this was a great way to get a good overview of the field and the conference especially if one cannot attend all the talks!

The second special sessionl also run by an OSA technical group was a tutuorial on Photonic Metamaterials and Metasurface design and simulation. In an hour the basic idea of how to design metasurfaces with some codes being run etc were discussed. Again the informal nature of the session was quite refreshing.

I also enjoyed the Diversity and Inclusion reception- each year I see more people attend and this includes a very diverse attendee profile. I see more and more men attending and realising that diversity events are not just for chicks!

A very special moment was meeting one of my heros- Prof. Hugo Hernandez, whose papers on simulation and methods have been part of my reading for ever so long. His clarity of thought and concepts is amazing. Obviously something like this is unique to each one of us- whom we admire deeply- but is it not lovely to meet that person and have a chance to actually talk!

So all in all very happy with my time at CLEO. Looking forward to the next conference now, but not the long flights or the jetlag!



Biennale, seismic activity and CLEO

So folks to start off the post- here is my latest crib about the intersection of art and science.

Once again at the Biennale in Sydney (this time at the carriageworks- a fantastic venue) I saw an exhibit/installation called Earthworks by Semiconductor. This work by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt  and I quote uses “… a scientific technique known as analogue modelling, where pressure and motion are applied to layers of particles to simulate tectonic forces, Earthworks is a five-channel immersive experience. As the name suggests, the computer-generated animation uses seismic data from the formation of landscapes and terrain around the world – glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes and human-made topographies – which is translated into audio used as soundtrack to the piece and the method of controlling the animation.”

Basically they took seismic data and produced a fascinating animation coupled with sound.

Why am I whingeing about it?

To begin with taking scientific data and presenting some strange shapes/sounds and calling it art seems disingenuous to me. Then the larger problem: they dont explain (through a colour key for example) what the colours in the animation represent: density/pressure/volume and where at what time scale. What is the significance of this data and the film we see? This idea that contemporary art can be just about anything that looks pretty/weird and makes little sense, to me is condescending to the viewer and a waste of public money. The use of scientific data is further mystifying science and making it even more arcane to the public. All in all such exhibits remove both art and science farther away from the average person than bring it closer or make it more comprehensible.

But onto happier things: CLEO!

Yes, the 2018 CLEO is almost upon us and once again I will be teaching my short course on FEM there and attending the conference. I am really looking forward to the talks and events and will hopefully get the time to blog here about the ones  I enjoyed the most.

If you are also attending CLEO and would like to say hello please do so!

From art to optics…

My fascination with art is not new to those of you who read my blog.

Today I wanted to mention a scientist and inventor whom I admire very much: Susan Houde-Walter.

What really fascinates me about her is the career path: from art to science. She was an art student who got interested in holography and using holograms as an art form and eventually became a scientist, inventor and started her own company making miniaturised laser systems.

It is unusual to find people who start life in arts and pick up science and maths and go into these careers. Typically we find migration the other way. But I wonder what it is like inside the head and imagination of someone who is as creative both artistically and scientifically?

Not only that, Susan has been a President of the Optical Society of America in 2005. so there are a lot of superlatives there….


Numerical relativity

Last evening I had immense pleasure in listening to a lecture by Prof. Nergis Mavalvala, who spoke about LIGO, detection of graviational waves and the role of optics in this tremendous endeavour. Giving a plenary talk in the Light the Future Series organised by Optical Society of America, as always Prof. Mavalvala was engaging and her passion for the topic came through bright and clear.

But the excitement she shared, for me centred on a few things:

The most recorded/watched astronomical event of all times most recorded/watched astronomical event of all times, the inspiral of a binary neutron star pair (also called GW170817)

  1. the LIGO and VIRGO confirmation of short gamma ray bursts (shorter than 2s) can now be associated with neutron star collisions
  2. heavy elements like Gold (and heavier) are likey caused by binary star collisions!

so these observations help solved some open questions in astrophysics.

But even more exciting to me was the branch of numerical relativity: the use of numerical methods in solving Einstein’s equations and predicting the collision of black holes/neutron stars, and other astrophysical events.

It’s so exciting to see numerical computations once again advance the frontier of pure science and take us where observations alone are not possible due to our technological limitations!!

So all those who feel simulations are only a support role- eat your hearts out.


The Diary of an academic nomad: culture,vulture!

Today I want to write about culture and its massive influence on our lives.

In my new adventure and time in Sydney the adjustments and changes have been many and in so many diverse areas too. Yet the thing we dont always talk about is how living in a culturally different environment can be like.

Culture is a big word and embraces so much. Our work place can be an entire world with it’s own culture and understanding how the work culture differs in the new organisation is vital. The rules of behaviour are unwritten and yet somehow as a new person one has to through observation and trial and error learn quickly. It is key to be happy to figure out what is acceptable and what is not, what works and what does not. It can be simple things like some places replying heavily on email exchanges while another where face to face is the prefered mode of communication. In some organisations autonomy is encouraged while in others team work is more important. Some work cultures offer a supportive environment and others leave you to find our own feet. So as a newbie you blunder along trying to understand these unsaid things.

Beyond organisations is the complex culture of a country/city! The language and cultural references… “arvo”, “bevvie” as opposed to afternoon and drink! Are the people as a whole more laid back, or do they never use their annual leave? Should one keep up with the sports news to have things in common with colleagues, friends or should one be trying to buy tickets to the opera? How do you dress- what is considered formal and what is dressed down?

In between these microcosms are the delicious layers of complexity added by individual personalities! Can a certain behaviour be attributed to the work culture or the culture at large, or is it just how this person is?

Navigating these tricky waters is draining and at times surprising- it throws up the preconveived notions we might hold in our head about people and their backgrounds! In every new culture I’ve moved in- I feel I’ve grown as a person and redefined my own sense of self. Yet this process is bittersweet-learning, making new friends and at times making mistakes.

What do you think?

Short term opportunities for female researchers

Hey folks!

I am delighted to say that through APEC there are a few 1-4 month research fellowships for women researchers.

Participants from Chile, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Thailand, China, Malaysia, Papua New Guinesa, Philippines, and Viet Nam can apply. See below for more details.

Those interested in some Photonics and modelling work  at UTS with me, please drop me a line:

2.1 Eligibility

To be eligible to receive the fellowship, applicants must:

  •  Be a female citizen and/or permanent resident of eligible APEC economies
  •  Not be an Australian citizen and/or permanent resident
  •  Have a conferred PhD degree by 1 April 2018
  •  Available to commence their proposed program between 1 July 2018 and 31 December 2018
  •  Provide all relevant supporting documentation in English
  • Obtain agreement from an academic supervisor from an Australian academic institution and/or organisation
  •  Not be undertaking research or training that leads to a formal qualification between 1 July 2018 and 31 December 2018

2.3 Financial Benefits (From $8,000 to $23,300 AUD per fellowship)

All recipients will receive in Australian Dollars:

  •  Travel allowance: $3,000 for Asian economies and $4,500 for South American economies
  •  Establishment allowance: $2,000
  •  Monthly stipend: $3,000
  •  Monthly family allowance: $1,200 (if applicable)


The Journal of an academic nomad

Setting up professional life in a new country and a new  department after having lived elsewhere for a long time is a bit like climbing a  tricky mountain.

Do you know one of those mountains which has several ridges and switchbacks?  so you are constantly having to turn around and feel like you haven’t  really reached very far even though you’ve been climbing for hours!

First of all it’s never about the professional life alone.  you need to do simple things like find a place to live, furniture, get the Internet connected… all those little things  you take for granted in a home.  the logistics can add spice of not knowing the area sufficiently and bumbling along constantly, being tripped up by the smallest things:  getting off at the wrong bus stop,  choosing the worst company or provider for a service et cetera.   The emotional toll it takes  to manage in an environment  that is completely new and in some ways alien is not something that we reckon with until we come across it.  By then the only way to deal with it is to soldier through. Of course these things are part of the fun  even if it doesn’t feel very funny at the time!

Trying to get all this sorted in parallel with setting up a new lab is pretty challenging.

For me the biggest challenge has been ( in the professional bit) to  find appropriate manpower.  in my previous lab I had set up:  computers, software and most importantly good PhD students.  PhD students are the lifeblood of any lab and research:  without them it almost impossible to sustain work.  It takes time to find good students and effort to train them and build a good partnership  that is fruitful for both student and supervisor. In a new  department the challenge is to find  funding sources  And mechanisms to recruit PhD students and then  training them ( I’m  not spending  lines on issues like Visa processing et cetera).   The time it takes to achieve just the setting up means almost up to  a year can pass before you have a good student  in place and longer before some meaningful research output can be delivered.

 Yet there is excitement: there is the chance to work with new partners who have different perspectives and  new facilities,  new research problems.  There is a palpable sense of possibilities, of the future... which keeps beckoning you  onwards and helps provide the incentive to whether through the  birthing pains.  Just as I  said earlier this comes with the  other aspects of life: discovering a new city, new food,  art!

All in all the  the fun and the less fun bits go together-  and in the process there is a  huge amount of personal growth having gone through all of this.




A new place and a new chapter

Hi all!

You must have thought I’ve become the world’s laziest person- with no updates or blogposts for so long.

Well I am happy to report it wasn’t my inherent laziness alone that was reason for the


moving! taken from link.

radio silence: I have moved jobs, countries and continents!

So I have much to share: I have now moved to Sydney, Australia where I have joined University of Technology Sydney (UTS) as Associate Professor and also Director of the Women in Engineering and IT (WiEIT) programme.

After living in London for 12 years the move is huge and took all my energy and time for the last 6 months. If anyone out there is thinking of moving for a postdoc, or  PhD read on- this experience might be interesting for you!

From the cold (it was snowing the day the packers came to pack my stuff for shipping) in London to 40C in Sydney, and a few thousand miles, 11 hour time difference it’s been about a new chapter in life or a whole new life (who knows I might become a lines umpire on the WTA tour now?). I had never been to Australia (or Oz as I like calling it) before and quite literally I jumped into the unknown for this role.

What drove me?

The role which combined science research and work on diversity was just too good to pass up. It gives me the opportunity to try and change things and be paid for it!!

Also I like  adventure: new people, places, food… so why not!

Much as the experience is exciting, it is also scary. I spend my time part terrified and part gawping (how they can expect me to work- the sun is shining!). When moving so far away you leave a lot behind: friends, family, colleagues, familiar places and knowledge of a system. You swap it for excitement, new opportunities and a degree of pain. It’s hard work to learn a new system and it’s rules. There is a different culture and lingo, new people and you feel out of your comfort zone. You miss home – or what used to be home till a few days ago, and familiar streets, markets are now all far away. There is a sense of dislocation too: where does the new you belong- here or the place you left?

All these questions and more we each answer in our own way. But rarely does anyone in academia and science talk about how hard it can be to move from culture to culture, one country to another and what to do to make it easier. Yet so many of us do move,  I think it is worth talking of our experiences.

The one thing I can contribute after making two such moves (from India to the UK in 2005) and now to Sydney, is that what skills you develop in moving go with you to help in your next move. No matter how scary everything is, eventually you will find your feet in the new place and make it your own- just be open to embracing it!



By artiagrawal Posted in General

Graphene for Supercontinuum Generation

In our most recent paper, my student and I looked at exploiting non-linearity of Graphene in a plasmonic structure for Supercontinuum Generation (SCG).

This work has been exciting to us for many reasons:

  • working on 2D materials. Graphene is a quick start and we are exploring other 2D materials and novel materials as well
  • exploiting plasmonic effects to go beyond sensing applications
  • we found Graphene behaving as a metal without negative permittvity and saw formation of Surface Plasmon Polaritons (SPP) at 300 and 371K. To us this is really exciting and could mean some new Physics lies in wait for exploration.

We generated a multi-octave broadband SC spectrum ranging from 1.5–25 micron at a low input peak power of 1 W.

Typically we expect that at a metal-dielectric interface, SPPs are formed when

k2/k1  = − ε2/ε1 ,

where ε2 and ε1 are the
permittivity of the metal and dielectric respectively. In our case, the permittivity of Graphene is not negative,  however we still observe the formation of SPPs. The values we obtained are summarised below:

graphene permittivity

Calculated conductivity and permittivity of single layer Graphene at 1550 nm for 450 meV and  500 meV – 300 K and 371 K

This performance SC spectrum ranging from 1.5–25 micron was possible due to the high Kerr non-linearity of Graphene and also the tailored waveguide dispersion we obtained.


Look out for more on this…