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





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

( 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!

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!

Of PhD theses

Some years ago I was writing my PhD thesis and today my student is writing his. Not only that I’m at this point examining the PhD theses of students from other universities.

What a big change it is from being a candidate  to being a supervisor or examiner!

All these three things are related and yet completely different.

"My doctoral thesis looks like a fake? Scandalous! I'll have a word with the bloke I bought it from!"

Cartoon on PhD thesis


As a student my worries were about trying to finish on time, producing something that my supervisor would find acceptable and then stressing about the viva-voce. I did not realise it at the time but a lot of the responsibility for successful completion of the PhD lay with my supervisor. I would often give him my results or work and then rest easy that his judgement would be sufficient. It did not occur to me at that time that it would’ve placed a certain burden on him, all that his judgement (given that all judgements are subjective) not be in agreement with that of  reviewers of a paper or a PhD examiner.

Those were the days of mental freedom and relative lack of worry.

As a supervisor suddenly the table has turned!

Now it’s my job to make sure that My PhD student’s thesis meets certain standards. So now I spend hours reading draft after draft, giving extensive and detailed comments on how to improve the chapter that I’m reading. Additionally I stress about preparing the student for their viva examination or thesis defence: Will they be able to answer the questions ask ed by the examiner? Is their knowledge of the literature and state-of-the-art sufficient? Is their command of the basic concepts sufficiently strong? Will they be able to control their nervousness?

In some ways you could say this experience is more nerve wracking than that of being a PhD student.

And when I think about being an examiner this is an entirely different ballgame.

Now from the piece of work in front of you (a thesis) one has to make a decision whether the work presented is of the standard expected for a PhD: the results and/or techniques presented amount to a novel and significant contribution to the scientific community. It is no longer about just judging the excellence after work. One has to read the thesis to see whether the basics are presented insufficient detail (including for example a literature survey) that convinces one as an examiner that the student understands the basics and has sufficient scientific knowledge of the field. In the final defence one would also have to ascertain the degree of independence the student has displayed in completing the work.

On one hand are the quality considerations (that as an examiner you judge whether the University regulations for the award of the degree are being met). On the other hand are people considerations. How do you discount for the nervousness of the student? How well can you really judge whether the student has led the work or it’s been led by the supervisor? If unfortunately the student doesn’t answer questions as well as one would like, does it mean the student doesn’t deserve a PhD (given the body of work presented in the thesis)? You realise that it is someone’s career at stake and your judgement has a huge impact on then.

It is a huge responsibility.

There is also the matter of your own personal reputation. Are you being fair, objective and technically sound in your judgement? Even if you have been all of these things are you been perceived in this way? If a situation arises with the student have you handled it in the best possible way that satisfies the regulations and is humane and considerate?

I always thought it was easy to sit in the chair of the examiner. I am now finding that it is perhaps the most difficult position to be in.

If you have any thoughts do let me know.





























Black Phosphorous and other things at CLEO 16

So I am back at CLEO for the third time teaching my short course on Finite Element Method again.

I had a busy 3.5 hours with the course, interacting with about 20 attendees who came to the course. It was much fun and afterwards I had two very interesting conversations on applying numerical methods:

  • what is the best method to use (BPM or FDTD) to study propagation and scattering in media with subwavelength disorder?
  • in highly dispersive materials close to epsillon being 0 (so resonances are present) how does one study non-linear effects in periodic structures where feature shape and size are important?

These sort of discussions are so exciting because they open my mind to new areas and challenge me to think about applying my knowledge and expertise in ways.

But that was not all. 

In talks I attended an invited talk on Optical Properties of Black Phosphorous (BP) stood out for me. This was in Session SW1R, the first talk by Xiamou Wang of Yale University. The authors gave some intriguing glimpses into what was a new topic for me. Graphene by now is well known as a 2D material. BP was a new material to me. It seems that it lies somewhere between Graphene and other Two Dimensional Materials (TDMs) such as Molybdenum DiSulphide. BP bridges the optical and electronic gaps.

The optical gap of Graphene is 0, while that of TDMs is large, BP is about 1.3eV for monolayer BP . The electronic gap bridge comes about because Graphene has low on/off ratio  and high electronic mobility, while TDMs have high on/off ratio and low mobility. BP has a medium on/off ratio and medium mobility.

Certainly of the 70 odd 2D materials available BP seems to be the new exciting thing! So it gives me something new to learn!

Some papers mentioned in the talk that you may want to look at:

PNAS, 112, 4253, 2015

Nano Letters, 14, 6414, 2014

Nature Photonics, 9, 247, 2015

Then there was the special symposium to mark 20 years of Photonic Crystal Fibers. In the symposium I really enjoyed the talk by Arnaud Mussot (SW1I.3) on topographic fibers. The central idea here is that the outer diameter (and through that the modal properties such as dispersion, non-linearity etc.) of the fiber can be varied along the length of the fiber. This variation can be sinusoidal or in some cases follow other profiles too. The applications discussed were on modulation instability, solitons. Though ofcourse there are many others. Some papers mentioned in the talk that you may want to look at:

Optics Letters, 37, 4832, 2012;

Physical Review A, 87, 013813, 2013;

Optics Express 23, 3869, 2015;

Optics Letters 40, 455, 2015;

Physical Review Letters, 116, 143901, 2016.

But that wasn’t all!

The event on Climbing the Ladder brought together 4 panellists who spoke of their career journeys. This was followed by lunch in which people sat in “mentor” or “mentee” chairs and talked to establish a mentor-mentee relationship.

So many of us feel we need some career advice (how to get a post-doc, how to change jobs, where to move to etc.) but we dont know whom to ask or how to find a good mentor. this was an opportunity to meet some excellent mentors and ask these questions, and perhaps start a longer relationship.

For mentors this was an opportunity to give back to the  community by supporting the next generation of professionals and leaders. Helping them navigate the choppy waters of education, careers and the intersection with personal life.

All in all it has been a superbusy and extremely rewarding time at CLEO, meeting people and networking, learning new things.

I hope I will see you there too in the future!

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!

Conferencing and making conferences

Last month I breathed a huge sigh of relief, gratitude and immense pride after the successful completion of OWTNM 2015. The OWTNM 2015 was the 23rd Optical Wave and Waveguide Theory and Numerical Modeling Workshop. Here is a video from the conference:

While this was my first experience of making a conference happen, I learned so much, I am off now to CLEO to teach a short course on Finite Element method. I am so very glad that I will be mostly attending and not responsible for more than my short course and after that my own person!

I wanted however to share some of my learnings from OWTNM here.

For those of you organising (or thinking of) their first conference these tips might come in handy!

1. Dates: make sure you get the dates that don’t clash with another premier event of the same nature. That way you don’t compete with other conferences.

2. Venue: a city that has strong tourism appeal, easy flight connections and travel ease will invariable attract more people. Though big cities can be expensive, they are easier to get to, find hotels of all budgets and there are things for people to do in the leisure hours they have. Apart from choosing the city, the actual venue should be easy to reach by public  transport and preferably not in the wilderness. Disabled access, enough toilets, some social space for delegates to sit and relax, wi-fi access make things pleasant.

3. People: perhaps the most important thing of all! You will need the right people for each task. For local committee and reviewers you may need senior academics. Some of these will only review papers, some will only give you contacts (with distinguished speakers you want to invite for example).They may not have time to do the running around, so be realistic in your expectations of them.

You will need people to do the nitty gritty work; making the conference programme, book of abstracts etc. These have to be people who you can rely on to do a good job on time. they will tend not to be super senior.

Advisors: again probably senior people who have organised several conferences and from their experience can help you a lot with timely and useful advice. the previous year’s organisers are good potential advisors too. Someone who had organised an event in your institution is good to speak with aswell: they know how to deal with the challenges specific to your institution.

The heavylifters: no (not counting the very expensive and professionally managed, like CLOE) conference is possible with out the sincere and dedicated work from an army of student volunteers. These young people, mostly post-grads, PhD students, do a lot of the running around. They can come up with the most creative ideas, solutions to problems and exciting inputs. Remember though that they are not experienced in this so can make mistakes. Be prepared to supervise and also be calm and listen!

The administrative staff! you will need to work with finance, catering, IT, security and such services. All these individuals will have an impact on the conference but for most it is not their primary concern. So you must be sensible in dealing with colleagues from these services: make sure you communicate clearly, ask for things in advance and remind them as needed.

4. Communication: a good website is a must for a successful conference. Getting people to learn about the conference, giving them information about paper submission, acceptance, registration, visas, accommodation, venue etc… all this determines how many people attend and how much they enjoy the event. Make sure your website is updated constantly, and emails are answered promptly. An easy to navigate, attractive site is always better than an eyesore!

Communication is important also within the team . You need to make sure people know what is expected of them. That you know what they expect from you! Remember to thank people and acknowledge their efforts, their contributions.

5. Finance and sponsors: you need to start with this almost as soon as you know you will host the event. Ask previous organisers for sponsors who gave support. Talk to all the companies in the field, professional bodies, publishers. Call people! Sometimes you will have to call them again and again. It is harder to say no to someone verbally than in an impersonal email. So call! You will need conference information to sell the event to them: Highlights from the previous year, and what you expect will happen this year, the benefit to the company. The website is very handy for this. That is why keeping it updated is an enormous help in attracting sponsors.

6. Flexibility and planning : somethings will go wrong despite your best efforts. Try and keep some slack in the plans you make. Above all you need to stay calm, rational and informed to make the best decisions at a time of crisis. Make sure you have a list of tasks that need to be completed, and by when, what their priority is. This master plan should be updated regularly and will help you stay on track.

Delegate: don’t try and do every thing yourself. You have picked a team that you trust, now show confidence in them!

For now that is all I can think if! Don’t hesitate to send in your comments and thoughts.

This is part of the wonderful team of students who made OWTNM  2015 possible.DSC03777

Another POV change!

Some of you may have wondered why I havent posted for a few days now. Well, its been a very busy and exciting few days that have kept me chained to my desk but away from the blog!

There is the usual excitement and busy period that comes with start of term and new students.

The biggest excitment (though it has been in the works for a few months) is OWTNM 2015.

In April I had attended the ECIO-OWTNM 2014 in Nice and while there I offered to host the next OWTNM in London. OWTNM stands for the Optical Wave and Waveguide Theory and Numerical Modelling workshop. The primary focus is on modelling methods for Photonics and results obtained with these. So bang my research area.

I wanted to organise this for a bunch of reasons:

– get the experience of hosting such a big event (though it is not by any means a huge conference)
– career development
– have some say in how sessions would run and which speakers to invite!
– be on the other side of a conference

Being on the editorial team of a couple of journals has changed my perception of academic publishing so much. I wondered how organising a conference would impact my view of conferences.

There is so much to do:
– get a bank account set up
– get a suitable venue
– fix dates that dont clash with other big events
– manage to get invited speaker who people want to hear, provided these elite speakers are free!
– raise funds, one of the hardest parts
– get a website set up
– publicising the conference

These are just the big headline items, and the major ones so far. The details (catering, review of submitted papers, banners, badges, bags, gala dinner, internet at the venue, who will open the conference…) that will need looking after will be a whole new level of effort.

Then there is dealing with the fear. What if we dont break even financially? What if the invited speakers back out? What if enough people dont submit papers? What if people hate it and hate me? Oh God!

Why did I think this was a good idea? If I read the reasons above I can see why. But sometimes it still feels like I am trying to ride a tiger (one that is sleeping for the moment).

The ride is scary and thrilling in equal parts. I will report back at regular intervals about the experience.

Meanwhile, I invite you to attend OWTNM 2015!

Working away

As some of my posts indicate there are times when I feel as buried under work as anyone. And I am sure you can attest to feeling the same:
– not enough hours to finish the work waiting
– thinking about work while you should be engrossed in family, friends
– feeling stressed and perhaps even low confidence because it seems you cant cope

These things are increasingly happening to academics. In the UK, the employment contracts many of us sign do not stipulate maximum working hours or exact duties. Instead we are meant to perform the taks considered necessary/relevant to our role by our employer. the time we spend performing these tasks is also in some ways implicitly decided by our employer.

Where does this leave us if we are over burdened?

The situation seems the same in every university: (junior staff especially) academic staff toiling away to teach several courses, while trying to establish themselves as research supestars. Then there is the admin work…In order to cut costs, staff are fired and the work redistributed amongst fewer staff members, who somehow are supposed to do more with less (less time, less rest, less resources).
Apply for grants, publish in top journals, get excellent teaching scores from students, publish a book, do the admin… the list is endless.

In trying to achieve these targets we put in ever increasing hours. Holidays are of shorter duration every year and some how the work laptop finds a way ito come on even during weekends, late nights and holidays.

There is no overtime money from the employer for any of this. No one from the Higher Education authority or any emplyment body/union to hold these employers to account.

Now this may seem like a rant and a moan (it is). But it also more.

It is upto us to not fall into this trap. While we may not all be able to walk up with our resignation lettter and walk into a better job, we can assert some control over our minds.

Our anxiety at not being able to do as much as we think is needed, is perhaps our biggest problem. If we can step back from the situation and the anxiety to objectively view things, we can make better decisions about our goals and how to achieve them.

I read an article recently which I found quite useful:

In my view we need and deserve to be treated more fairly by employers, a complete change in attitude is needed in educations. While we work towards this, we can also make changes in our individual lifestyles, thinking and perhaps self-management to help ourselves.