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


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!


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


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?



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


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.


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.

Monday at the Laser World of Photonics

So the Bavarian adventure continues! The evening had a Bavarian evening hosted by OSA, which was great German beer, traditional food and some song and dance.

Today was a fun and very tiring day again at the conference. 

So what did I attend:

  1. Optofluidics in Energy Applications by Demetri Psaltsis, EPFL Lausanne.

This was a brilliant talk giving an overview and idea of the research topics in this fascinating area. The focus was on applications for energy and that was my interest. He explained different how solar energy is used in solar fuel (convert one fuel/chemicals to another); solar thermal (use solar light to heat up liquids)… The thing I found fascinating was his explanation of why photosynthesis in plants/leaves is very inefficient! Apparently the efficiency is as low as 1-2%. The key thing is that water contents in leaves etc is heated and escapes as vapour, creating a negative pressure, because of which water moves up to the leaves from the roots, trunk etc. All this because plants too have an optimal temperature (about 20degrees Centigrade) and need to cool down. So essentially photosynthesis as a process only providing part of the energy needs of the plants, while the heating of the fluids is moving huge amounts of water and expending lots of energy! This is also a reason that bio-mimetic PV should not look at photosynthetic processed as an inspiration. Some papers from this group mentioned in the talk include: Optics Express, Vol. 21, no S3, pp A460, 2013; Nature Photonics Vol. 4, pp. 583, 2011.

2. Mode instabilities in LMA fibers: the speaker gave a great over view of this barrier to power scaling of high power fiber lasers. The basic idea is that apart from effects like SBS, SRS, damage threshold of materials, and heating of fibers, there exists another issue. This issue is that for most fibers after power increases above a threshold, the mode changes and seems to oscillate between higher order and fundamental modes.  This generates an interference pattern which affects the mode inversion of the fiber laser, leading in turn to an inhomogeneous temperature profile and due to the thermal properties of the material this creates a refractive index grating. As the pump power is not absorbed homogenously the power scaling gets limited. Some papers from this group mentioned in the talk include: Optics Express, Vol. 19, pp 13218, 2011; Optics Letters, Vol. 35, pp. 94, 2010; Optics Express Vol. 20, pp 11407, 2012.

3. Quantum Coherence at the level of a individual light harvesting complexes.   In this fantastic talk from the group of Nick van Hulst, were presented results for light harvesting by a bacterial complex. So essentially bacterial photosynthesis. The transport of the excitation energy was found to be almost 95%! The possibility of quantum coherence leading to such high efficiency was discussed. They cited Brinks, Hildner et al. Optics Express, 2011. This talk has given me a reason to go back to the Quantum Mechanics textbooks and undertand quantum coherence.

I also saw part of the exhibition and got lost! It was HUGE! There are about 1000 exhibitors so you can imagine. In trying to see the entire exhibition in 1 day (mistake and could not manage it anyway) I ended up missing the poster session. Bummer!

I hope to make it to the posters tomorrow. Till then!

To the Capital and the Capitol!

In this post I want to try and capture all the incredible stuff that was part of or related to the OSA Leadership Winter Conference.

In summary the stuff I loved:

–          the conference

–          the people

–          the plenaries

–          DC!!!

The conference:

Held once a year in Feb in Washington DC (which one could say is not only the capital of the United States but also of OSA whose HQ are based in the city) this conference is an essential part of the nuts and bolts machinery of OSA. As members we don’t often think of how all the OSA activities get organized, planned and delivered. Many of the activities or services we see directly, but there is a ton of stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make all that happen. And all of it takes some doing.

To manage its many publications, meetings, awards, student chapters, local sections, outreach, member services, website, public engagement, and much more OSA has several committees/councils. Each of which has oversight of that specific service. Members of these committees are volunteers and OSA employees. Through various meetings (including this one) each committee sets goals, how to achieve these, reviews progress and outcomes, debates on new challenges and opportunities facing OSA etc. A big chunk of the work is done by the OSA personnel (who are fantastic! I should know now, since I had the chance to meet some of them face to face).

When invited to collect my award as the OSA Young Professional for the year and attend the conference, I was a bit worried about the conference. Given its non-technical nature, I was a bit skeptical about how much I’d enjoy it.

Was I wrong!

The sessions I attended on Member Education Services (MSE) council, Publications Council and the Public Policy Engagement council were absolutely fascinating. To see the working of the committees that produce the journals I read and submit papers was cool. To hear the debates on how to improve opticsinfobase for users, compare performance of OSA journals with others, and the capabilities of the enhanced html files made me think for the first time not about the research itself, but what goes into making that research accessible in the way OSA does. I missed out on the sessions of International Council, which has oversight of how OSA functions as a global body.

The running theme throughout the conference for me: it was all about learning how OSA does what it does.

 This experience brought home that every scientific body, to differing degrees influences policy and trends in Science and Technology. Which technical areas it priorities influences members (their research) and journals (what gets published). How it delivers its services and the mechanisms used, determine the degree of access for user groups. Its engagement with the public, the policy makers and industry can give it direct influence. For large global bodies the challenge lie in meeting the needs of a diverse membership spread across the world. The sheer logistics of managing these are immensely demanding.

But it’s never just the business, is it?

I met so many fantastic people: volunteers from South Africa, Chile, Peru, Korea, and Japan… I think some of my most enjoyable conversations were with members of the Library committee (these are professional librarians who are not OSA members or optics researchers). I met a librarian from MIT, and we had fun talking about open access publication and the future of the gold route (you may have read my post: Open access: needs more work!). I met a statistician who works on membership data of APS/AIP and we spoke about how important modeling is for science (yes, especially Photonics)

I briefly spoke to Donna Strickland, the president of OSA. It was incredibly inspiring to see a female scientist reach the top in the profession and be recognized.  If she can do it, I guess many of us can too!

The surprise package though was the plenary talks.

I had expected serious, technical plenaries on some hot area of optics. We for serious and exciting talks for sure. We had Marc Kaufman , a senior journalist and reporter for the Washington Post talk about the search for extra-terrestrial life. The images he projected from the Curiosity mission and even of the work scientists are doing to find life on earth in extreme conditions (that might mimic some places in space/other planets etc.) was fascinating. My childhood ambition was to be an astronaut, so this talk just really hit the spot for me. Perhaps more so, because I was not expecting something like it.

And yes, DC itself.

The capital is a beautiful city, well connected by metro allowing visitors (who can’t drive) access to its many attractions. Over the weekend that I stayed in DC after the conference, I chose to do a ‘highlights of the East building tour’ in the Gallery of Art and a walking tour of the Mall (DC by Foot). Both were free and for someone short on time, an excellent way to sample some of the good things DC has to offer. With the gallery tour I got to see some of the best pieces of art in the gallery and learn about them. On the walking tour, I learned about American History: to see some key memorials that mark the birth of a nation, the actions of men such as Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, King and others, and the results of these actions were great experiences.

I hope to return to the city.  I hope to return to the conference! And I hope that in some way I can apply what I learned in the city to my life, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope’


Why I want to be a S(A)MOSA!


As a MOSA or member of Optical Society of America I have enjoyed several samosabenefits: discounted conference registration, access to journals, free OPN, resources for student chapters and most of all the opportunity to network with other people in Optics. It’s been worth paying the yearly membership dues for all these and other privileges.

OSA like other professional bodies has grades of membership and once you are a MOSA, the next step is SMOSA or senior member of OSA and finally FOSA or Fellow of OSA if you have done sufficient sterling work. These grades reflect achievement and seniority in the profession and also serve to add value to one’s CV.

All of the above sounds rather serious and highbrow.  But it tickles me just a little.

SMOSA immediately reminds me of samosa, a tasty Indian savoury snack. I really like the idea of being a S(A)MOSA. I don’t obviously want to be eaten alive by anyone.  Nor do I want false pretences to be my claim to fame: first live human samosa!

However, the merit of being a S(A)MOSA apart from the serious stuff and what that entails, is that it might just bring a smile to someone’s face and it may be cool to be associated with a delicious snack.

Now what could FOSA conjure up?