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SPIE Professional January 2015

Women in optics: Obstacles can be lessons

Career advice from science professionals in the 2015-16 SPIE Women in Optics monthly planner

By Karen Thomas

"My greatest obstacle was myself,” says Anke Lohmann, head of photonics at the Knowledge Transfer Network (UK). Lohmann’s job is to enable innovation in the UK based on photonics technologies coming out of both academic and industrial research teams. She ensures that different market sectors are aware of what photonics can do for them and makes the essential introductions between organizations.

Lohmann remembers that early in her career she lacked self-confidence even though she knew how to get the job done. She saw other people take on work and succeed even though they were “no more or even less competent” than she. Over time she has learned to show more confidence and believe in her own abilities.

Sharing such lessons and viewpoints is the goal of the SPIE Women in Optics monthly planner. The spiral-bound desk calendar features stories and pictures of optics and photonics professionals making a difference in the world through their work.

The women featured in the 2015-16 calendar discuss what a typical work day is like for university professors, graduate students, engineers, company presidents, and lab scientists, and offer words of wisdom for those contemplating a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). By discussing their occupations and how they got to where they are, these women introduce a range of opportunities available in the optics and photonics field and help inspire prospective researchers and scientists.

The calendar is distributed free to SPIE members, career counselors, science teachers, and community clubs. To receive a copy, email customerservice@spie.org.

Learning from obstacles

One of the biggest obstacles for Jessamyn Fairfield of Trinity College Dublin (Ireland) occurs when she feels she’s “getting nowhere,” such as when an experiment isn’t working or when the next steps to take aren’t clear. “I always try to break those problems down into manageable steps I can try,” says Fairfield, who develops electrical and optical devices using nanomaterials. “When the big picture is scary, focus on the little picture! And then when you get the small stuff working, you can go back to thinking big.”

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (USA), Linda Hoeglund develops infrared detectors and heat sensors. Hoegland advises young scientists and researchers to gain experience in their field and share this experience at conferences and through networking. While working with others, don’t hesitate to take on tasks that are new and challenging. “You learn so much from every challenge,” she says. “You will always find ways to solve problems that occur.”

Women in Optics Gaining Ground

A recurring theme among the stories in the SPIE Women in Optics calendar is the additional hindrance of gender stereotyping. While more doors have opened for women in science today, the stories they tell show that while the gender gap may have narrowed, it has yet to completely close.

The issue was reinforced with the release of the SPIE 2014 Optics & Photonics Global Salary Report, which showed a disparity of 40 percent in median salary between men and women.

SPIE Member Christina Willis of Vision Engineering Solutions (USA) recalls that early in her career she sometimes imposed pressure on herself not to “look dumb,” which was counterproductive, especially when it meant holding back questions. She is now a believer in the phrase “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” as there have been times when she wished she had been more willing to ask for help or direction and not worry about other people’s perception. “I wish someone had encouraged me to be that squeaky wheel sooner” Willis says.

Kirstin Baum is a graduate student at Philipps-Universität Marburg (Germany) where she is working on a diffuse optical tomography system (DOT) for small-animal imaging and pre-clinical research. The principle is similar to computed tomography, using near-infrared light instead of ionizing radiation.

Baum is also the founder and head of the project “Get ahead with optics.” This summer-school program in Tunisia assists young women studying optics and photonics by providing them with professional skills. SPIE sponsored the summer-school in 2012. (Read more about “Optics in Tunisia.”)

With all that she does, including caring for a family, Baum wonders why there still aren’t many women in high-level positions in science. Baum feels that organizations that don’t encourage women (and mothers) will miss out on good workers. She points out that through everyday life, mothers have developed great organizational skills and can deal with stressful situations.

“Never say I cannot do it,” Baum says. “And never be too shy to ask questions.”

SPIE members featured in 2015-16 planner

Ten of the 27 women featured in the SPIE Women in Optics 2015-16 planner are SPIE members.

Women in Optics panel discussion and reception at Photonics West

The Women in Science and Technology Leadership session takes place Monday 9 February at SPIE Photonics West. The distinguished panelists include SPIE Member Susan Tousi of Illumina (USA), and Allison Lami Sawyer of Rebellion Photonics (USA), who will share insight and wisdom about their individual journeys. Both are featured in the 2014-15 SPIE Women in Optics planner.

This panel discussion is followed by a reception, offering refreshments and the opportunity to meet the panelists and connect with peers.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4201501.11

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