Erin Elliott - 2020 SPIE Women in Optics Planner
Optical Research Engineer
Country of Birth: USA
Science was part of my childhood because I was surrounded by people who were interested in the world. We had a “BASIC” cartridge for our Atari, and even though I just copied their printed programs, it made programming seem interesting instead of mysterious. My uncle gave us an early Osbourne computer, and we were fascinated by it. Scientific American, Discover, and other accessible publications were always around our home, so I was able to glimpse what was happening in the science world. A love of geometry, and later programming and mechanics, led me through my physics classes, and then to astronomy instrumentation.
My current job at Zemax is to invent software tools that help engineers design and build their optical hardware. One product I work on makes it easy to incorporate structural and thermal changes into optical models in OpticStudio. I work to create tutorials and webinars on solving tricky optical simulation problems. I’m also developing demonstrations of how to embed OpticStudio into larger, complex simulations.
The biggest challenge in my career has been finding a job that I really love. The only way to find a job you love is to keep trying new ones, which can be a little scary. Trying out new jobs became much less intimidating once I knew myself better and trusted that my skills were valuable. Now that I’ve landed at Zemax, I feel like a kid that gets to go to the playground every day. I wasn’t sure that such a job existed until now!
I wish that I could reach back in time and give myself more confidence. When I was younger, I didn’t understand that everyone can contribute in scientific and technical fields. Genius is not a requirement and is in surprisingly short supply anyway. Anyone who works hard at a problem they care about will succeed and move their field forward.
My advice to younger engineers is to hold out for a job that you really love. Change jobs every two years, if you can, until you find one where you are happy. The job that matches your talents is out there somewhere. Finding a career that you love also requires knowing yourself well. Pay attention to what gives you real satisfaction.
Also, as a woman in science, you will, unfortunately, have to fight against a constant low-level message from people who are surprised that you are talented or even capable. You will have to be your own advocate, even if you do find good mentors. Read about bias and discuss it with others; learn how to recognize it, ways to deal with it, and legal ramifications of bad situations that you might encounter.