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?



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!!

A marriage made in CLEO: astronomy/physics and photonics

My love for the stars is not new to some of you. So the tone of this post should not be a surprise.

At CLEO amongst other talks and sessions was a special symposium on

Advances and opportunities in Astro Photonics, JF1N. There were two particular talks that really caught my attention:

The first invited talk (JF1N.1) was by Olivier Guyon titled, “Where are our closest neighbours? Looking for life in nearby exo-planets”.

Exo-planets! Do you need to say even one word more to catch the interest of the people? For sure I was hooked by the title alone and the talk delivered. Some interesting facts that was thrown up in the talk included that about 10% of stars have potentially habitable planets around them. By habitable we mean a mass similar to the Earth and distance that is similar to the Earth from the sun, placing these planets in the habitable zone because that temperature would allow life and may enable liquid water to exist on the planet surface as well.

As the speaker pointed out the question is not if there is life out there but how close it is to us so we know where to look so we know where to look.

He then went on to talk about diff to talk different planet detection techniques: those that are indirect such as astrometry and radial velocity based and those that are direct.

The trouble with direct detection via telescopes on Earth is that the planets are so close to the star (angular separation over this huge distance is very small) that the light from the star far outshines the light reflected by the planet making it virtually invisible. This means we need other more clever ways of finding planets which obviously do not emit their own light.

Radial velocity has thus far been the most successful indirect technique in detecting exoplanets. It relies on the fact that a star also feels the gravitational tug of the planet/s orbiting it and executes motion along an orbit. The change (blue/red) shift of its spectral lines due to the Doppler effect in this orbital motion can be used to detect the presence of the exoplanet.

This technique would detect large planets close to the star in a short orbit, causing a wobble that is detectable. But such large planets close to the star are unlikey to host life. So other techniques are needed to detect smaller planets in the habitable zone.

Astrometry the second technique discussed is where photonics will come in! The technique  relies on the motion of the star changing (a slight wobble if we plot the  projection of its motion around its centre of mass) and detecting this wobble. This would be of the order of a few micro arc seconds while ground based telescopes have detection capability of say half an arcsecond. Theoretically increasing the diameter of a telescope would make it capable of measuring smaller wobbles, but atmospheric turbulence decreases this. Use of adaptive optics is one way to combat it! As well as use of interference with astrometry in the VLTI.

I will blog about the second talk another day. Meanwhile happy reading on astrometry and astrophotonics!!

By artiagrawal Posted in General

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!