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?

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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!

 

 

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.

 

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.

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!

The best place for a conference…

Is in my view Italy. Or where the senses are as engaged as the brain!

I’ve attended many conferences over the years some of them absolutely excellent and some not so good. However I have never attended conferences that compare to the 2 that are my favourite and were both in Italy.WP_20160706_08_11_28_Pro (1)

So some of you who read my blog May know conferences interest me not only for their technical content and speakers, but also for the location, the food, sightseeing and the general fun that one can have.

And in that respect I think no one can top the Italians when it comes to hospitality and organising breathtakingly lovely conferences.

My first such experience was at OWTNM in Varese. Not only did we stay in an old converted chateau but also the organisers had managed to book a special viewing of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” for the conference attendees. The best the art world has to offer for scientists to see-it is enough to make anyone want to become a scientist!

WP_20160706_07_59_05_Pro (1)My latest Italian experience was the IONS conference in Naples conference in Naples in July, where I was invited to give a talk as an OSA ambassador.

The brilliant thing about this conference was that it was held in church given to the University (the church is no longer used as a place of worship). The setting was spectacular as you can make out from these photographs. And in such a venue with terrific hosts who know how to make their guests and attendees happy it was a great place to meet people, exchange ideas and to work up new collaborations.

All in all that is the way to conference I think. What  do you feel?

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Visting OSA Student chapters!

As an OSA Ambassador in the centenanial year for OSA I had the privilege of visiting student chapters in India. In this post I want to record my impressions of that visit.

I traversed from north India (New Delhi, the capital city) to the Eastern cost (Hyderabad) and then Kolkatta before retracing my steps. Each of the flights I took within India was fully 2 hours at the least and the size of the country reminded me that visiting several chapters really needs several days in addition to the actual visits. Not to mention the heat which was beginning to really turn on as the Indian summer got underway (think temperatures of 46 degrees Celsius in Delhi).IMG_1026

The heat, the long flights and hectic schedules were however almost forgotten when interacting with the chapters, being overwhelmed by their generous hospitality and impressed by their work. The passion and enthusiasm that I saw in the students was so infectious and energizing that I feel grateful I could interact with these wonderful students.

In Delhi I met the IIT Delhi student chapter and gave a talk to an audience of 30. There were plenty of questions about the Finite Element method and its implementation, how to deal with field continuity across boundaries and taking care of reflections. On the chapter side the discussion revolved around the best way to engage more of the members in organizing activities and participation.

The IIT Delhi student chapter told me about their activities: seminar series, open days where schools student would visit and be shown demonstrations, quiz competitions and a very successful IONS conference as well. It all sounded wonderful and I was very pleased for a personal reason: I had started this chapter way back in 2003 as a PhD student. So to me the sustained success of the chapter is very satisfying.

This was something we talked about too: when chapter leaders complete their degrees and move on, how to hand over the leadership so there is a continuity in the activities. Good communication was seen to be key! As well as learning from the success stories of other chapters globally to get ideas for events . The chapter was vibrant, active and engaged.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the visit to my alma mater I then hopped to Hyderabad. The Vidya Jyothi Institute of Technology chapter was my host in this historic city which serves the best biryani ever.

I cannot describe adequately how deep an impression the chapter has left on me. Sitting in the outskirts of Hyderabad, the chapter is hosted in a largely undergraduate institution, with some very keen and intelligent students. The chapter was holding seminars and doing some invaluable outreach work going to poor schools and even orphanages, bringing Optics and Science to underprivileged children who would not otherwise ever have access to things like the OSA discovery kit. They are inspiring children who have little opportunity and really brining to life the mission and vision of OSA in a way that deserves recognition and support. I only wish more chapters in India, Asia and Africa would go to schools in poorer neighbourhoods.

Our discussions were ofcourse not confined only to their activities but also the interests of the chapter members! Again the enthusiasm for Science and the love for different aspects of science was like a current running through the room.  Beyond Optics, I was trying to answer questions about black holes and the Large Hadron Collider!

Carrying with me the fantastic experience of Delhi and Hyderabad it was fitting that I went to Kolkatta, the city where Optics was born in India. It is also the city where some of the best sweets are made!

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In a series of joint events hosted by University of Calcutta, IIT Kharagpur, Institute of engineering and Management, that lasted the entire day i met more than a 100 students!

The morning lecture was the University Of Calcutta after which we shared a bus, several cars to go to the Institute of Engineering and Management for lunch and the second lecture, followed by a interaction only session at the University of Engineering and Management.

 

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To say I was overwhelmed by the brilliance of the students, their ideas, their questions and their interest, would be an understatement. If someone could bottle the energy in the room, they could power a city for a week!

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From solar cell optimization, to whether optical computers would be viable to grapheme waveguides the technical discussion was wideranging. The chapters and their activities again were very diverse and there was a real interest from the students in getting new ideas for events.

To each of the chapters, the members, the organisers and faculty advisors I cannot say “thank you” enough times. I loved this experience and I only wish I could have spent more time at each place.

Some common themes that I picked up from all the chapters were:

  • looking for new ideas for events/engaging members. In my view learning from the success and best practice of chapters the world over is a great way to do this. As is engaging with other local chapters
  • paying the OSA memberhip fees via credit cards was not easy for some chapters, and I have since learned that local bodies such as Optical Society of India (OSI) can collect the OSA dues if members also join OSI.

When I set out from London, I wondered how the trip would pan out. Now that I am back I know this: I want to go again!!

Optics and exhibitions

Recently I visited two exhibitions and both have completely blown my mind.

The first was the Cosmonauts exhibition at the science museum in London  and the second was the Phillips collection where I  had the opportunity to see the Paul Allen

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Poster from the Cosmonauts exhibition

collection in  Washington DC.

So about Cosmonauts first:  the exhibition tells the story of Soviet Russia’s foray into space and how it put the first man-made objects, landed them on other planets and launch the first man into space.  Imagine seeing the space suit worn by Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space!  It was a stunning experience as well as a very moving one.

There was a letter there from a young girl who asked the soviet space agency to send her to the moon because she had the appropriate fur coat and boots!  She said that she was willing to die but would they please please send her!

This passion for space and exploration is not new and the exhibition showed the excitement generated the world over when  when the Gagarin went into space.

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Poster from the Cosmonauts exhibition

What does this have to do with optics?

Well if you’ve seen the new photographs from Pluto they completely break apart the theories that we have about planets.  How can a planet that is not in geologically active have mountains?

The roll that optics has to play in all this is  is opening our eyes to new wavelengths-  enabling us to observe the world in frequencies that we haven’t been able to do so before  as effectively as we can now.  With the new sources and detectors in the IR and far IR we should be able to detect signs of life potentially!

So with optics to the stars then!  And this time we can possibly travel there too.

And now about the Paul Allen collection: at the OSA  winter leadership meeting there was a reception held at the Phillips collection,  and I’ll gallery in D.C.  The Paul Allen collection on landscape painting with charted how landscape painting has changed over 400 hundred years was being shown.

The sumptuous  collection of Monets, Manets, Signacs, even a Matisse and Kandinsky, a surreal Magritte were simply fabulous! Unfortunately i could not take photographs of these and post them here.

Optics took me to DC and it was optics that give me the opportunity to see these masterpieces.  Not to mention that there was the visual optical process of actually looking at these paintings.

Overall I would say optics is a win-win! I had a fabulous time and I hope you can  experience what Art other sciences bring in conjunction with optics in to our lives.

 

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.