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.





























Workshops with a difference

Small workshops and conferences are fun!

When the speakers come from fields very different from you own, the fun quotient seems to increase even more.

This was reinforced for me at the recent workshop on Biomimetics held at Imperial College. Getting to hear talks from chemists, biologists, zoologists,  physicists and engineers on talks that had one primary connection: bio-inspiration or bio-mimicry was really interesting.

Animals that prey tend to have slit pupils as opposed to round pupils for animals that don’t prey. Connect that to design of optical systems, computer vision and algorithms!

Or think of how colour originates from arrangement of butterfly wing scales because of wave interference effects rather than pigments. Now use this for colour that doesn’t fade.

It helped that I had the opportunity to invite some speakers I really wanted to hear as a co-oganiser!

Another thing I like about smaller events is the informal nature: fewer people and enough time provides space for meaningful interaction. The atmosphere is intimate and relaxed. Spending a day (or two) with a small group helps foster interaction.

Next time I’ll blog about another smaller workshop that I enjoyed in Delhi.

Cheers till then!

The graveyard shift

Most of us in academia have been there: having to give a talk in the last session on that last day of the conference, aka the graveyard shift.

If you have attended even 2 (such a significant sample statistically!) conferences you would see the drastic drop off in attendee numbers by the last day. The number of people attending the very last session can possibly be counted on the fingers of 2 hands, or even just the one.



When my talk is scheduled for the graveyard shift it produces a mixture of emotions in me: annoyance and relief.

Before the event the annoyance is because it means I will have to stay till the last session and no skulking off early to save hotel expenses for a night; or traipsing around town sightseeing. I feel stressed about the upcoming presentation and the need to keep improving it till the last possible minute. A sure-fire fun busting mechanism!

The relief contradictorily comes from preparing a fantastic presentation for a very small audience (I hope). Simply because it will mean fewer awkward questions and the nervousness I feel will be so much lesser if I am confronting only empty seats and not a room full of leading lights in the field.

Once the adrenaline of making the presentation wears off the real aggravation however sets in!

I think: “Honestly I spent all that money, traveled so far and worked so hard to present just to the person chairing the session, and maybe 4 others 2 of whom were anxious speakers, one attendee who was texting the whole time and the   other who slept through my operatic performance”!

It can be a real downer to see no one there to hear you pour out your passion on research you love.

The impact of the presentation and my work is lost as virtually no one heard it. I didn’t get a chance to discuss it or get feedback from other people working on similar things. All my hard work seems devalued somehow.

So how does one deal with the graveyard shift?

I have tried some of the following with mixed success:

  • Prepare my presentation to the best of my ability in advance and NOT keep improving it till the last second. This removes the metaphorical chain that ties me to my hotel desk and allows me to have some fun (sightseeing, local food, shopping, meeting people) while still being professional.
  • Advertising the talk to people I met in the early part of the conference can be helpful. Not all of them will come for my talk of course, but some might if our discussion was interesting to them.
  • Not taking it personally: I have to remind myself that the organisers don’t hate me and nor do the other attendees. Someone has to be in the graveyard shift, so this time I drew the short straw.

Personally I have some ideas for organisers to avoid graveyard shifts:

  • keeping a dinner/social event after the last session to incentivize people to stay
  • have something similar to keynote/plenary talk at the end
  • have an awards session at the end

Till such time as attendees continue to decamp before the last session, we need ways to survive graveyard shifts.

What are your thoughts?



By artiagrawal Posted in General

Some more student success

Success is always sweet. The success of one’s students is even sweeter!

I have the pleasure of co-supervising a very capable young man called Souvik Ghosh, who has recently won the best oral presentation award at Photonics 16 conference in the Photonics Modelling/Quantum Optics category.

To win such a prestigious award at an international conference is a big feat.  Certainly I am almost as proud as Souvik is.

You can see the paper that won him the award here: souvik_photonics-2016.

Smart Students, Smart Shirts and Smart Outcomes

I feel so happy today in writing this blogpost.

rodrigo-2Rodrigo, a student who did his final year  dissertation under my supervision, designed a smart shirt to detect temperature, ECG and sweat. More on his project can be seen in this  file: rodrigo-brochure.

Rodrigo designed and implemented  a smart wearable shirt, which monitored real time heart rate and upper thoracic temperature, as well detected sweat secretion as indication of dehydration.

He not only got a 1st in his project, but this project was chosen for 3rd prize in Made at City Competition. Rodrigo won a medal, and a cash prize!rodrigo-1

The work he did was amazing: he applied so much of what he had learned in his course on Biomedical Engineering and the research reading he did to something practical.

Every year we supervise many students and some of them get good grades. But it is rare to get a student with such passion who really applies the knowledge earned to create something useful in such an innovative manner.

I enjoyed working with him and I hope his story can encourage other students in doing work they find exciting and enjoyable.

Certainly as his supervisor I enjoyed it!


Royal Society Athena Prize for Equality

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

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

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

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

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

If only there was a prize for equal pay too!

Bio-inspiration and Science

I came across this article about bio-inspired design in medicine and it resonated so much with me that I wanted to blog about it.

You can read the article here.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion that bio-inspiration and bio-mimicry can be useful but should not be followed blindly or thought to give answers to any and every problem.

The designs evolved in nature over millennia come about through constraints, and are therefore related to those constraints.  If the (design) problems we aim to solve have similar constraints then the bio design is a great template to explore.

It was inspirational also to read the personal story and journey of Jefrrey Karp and how he followed his intuition and design idea from a concept to a finished product!

I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did.

Thermodynamics and Photonics: a match made in California

Some of the best Science is that of sinple, elegant and seemingly outrageous ideas: the sort that relate to the basics of Physics.

At a recent plenary talk at Photon16 by Professor Shanhui Fan this is exactly what we got to see and hear. The idea of solar cells converting illumination (or what Shanhui calls positive illumiunation) into current is not new.

However he went a step further: negative illumination!

When a cell is dark, and if its temperature is higher than the ambient it must give away the excess energy to maintain thermodynamic equilibrium. Presto- current in the opposite direction compared to the daylight!

Ergo a cell that can generate electrical power in the day and the night!

To me this concept is beuatiful because it uses some fundamental and very simple Physics.

This sort of thinking that focuses not on technological aspects or narrow single disciplines alone but rather sees Science/Physics as a whole is what challenges status quo and leads to exciting new discoveries!


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?