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SPIE Professional July 2011

The Juggler's Equation

By Kathy Sheehan

Female optical scientists will never find a "good time" to have a baby, submit a proposal, take a sabbatical, clean the office, or even relax and watch a movie. Problems and stumbling blocks will always be in the way, so follow your dreams and "seize the moment."

Based on her own experiences, that's the advice SPIE Fellow Anita Mahadevan-Jansen of Vanderbilt University (USA) gives to younger colleagues and students trying to juggle their personal and professional lives.

As a young girl in India, Mahadevan-Jansen desperately wanted to become a physician. Today, however, she finds herself happily "scribbling on the whiteboard," as a university professor while conducting biophotonics research (with her husband, Duco Jansen), engaging in community service, and parenting two children.

Her key to successfully juggling of duties and roles is that she doesn't compartmentalize her life.

Mahadevan-Jansen and husband Duco Jansen
Professional = Personal

"The professional me is the personal me," she says. Instead of managing the different areas of her life separately, she finds ways to combine them.

Take her dream of becoming a doctor. Mahadevan-Jansen was initially devastated when she failed to qualify for medical school in India, scoring a mere one point below the required mark on the entrance exam. She went on to receive a BS and MS in physics at the University of Bombay, but she still wasn't happy that she couldn't become a doctor. Her father had died of brain tumor in 1980 (when there was only one CT scanner in all of India), and she had promised herself that she would devote her career to life-saving medicine.

Then her brother introduced her to the field of biomedical engineering, and S.B. Patel, her faculty mentor, encouraged her to learn more about how medicine can be combined with physics.

Although there were no biomedical engineering degrees in India available at the time, she was determined to follow her dream. She found a program at the University of Texas at Austin where A.J. Welch and Rebecca Richards-Kortum (an SPIE member now at Rice University) became her biophotonics mentors.

"They were developing technology and using it to help clinical care," she says. "And I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do." Mahadevan-Jansen's research there focused on using laser spectroscopy to help medical doctors screen for cancer.

She earned another MS and a PhD in biomedical engineering at Texas. She had effectively become a doctor in the medical field.

The child variable

At Texas, she met her future husband, Duco Jansen, who was also working on his doctorate in biomedical engineering. They married in 1995, and she moved with him when he got a job at Vanderbilt beginning in January 1997. Perhaps that wasn't the best time to have a baby, but she was eight months pregnant with their first child when they arrived in Nashville, TN, in December 1996.

After their daughter Kiana was born and Anita began work at Vanderbilt, the two scientists didn't have much time to consider when would be the best time to begin traveling to conferences with children. Kiana was only three weeks old when she "attended" SPIE Photonics West in her mother's arms in January 1997. Since that time, both Kiana and her brother Arvin have been to dozens of photonics conferences, sometimes seen crawling around during poster sessions.

"I can't compartmentalize my life," Mahadevan-Jansen says.

Fortunately, academic and research jobs often offer the flexibility to be able to do that, she acknowledges. "I can take my kid to work if I need to," she says.

As for sleep, she says, "It's a fact of life: you will never get eight hours sleep."

Today she is a professor of biomedical engineering and neurological surgery, and she gets to wear scrubs — just like a doctor.

Don't drop that ball!

Mahadevan-Jansen was the Women in Optics speaker at SPIE Photonics West in January.

She discussed her "juggling act" with four balls representing research, teaching, service, and family.

The family ball, she says, "is the one ball you can't afford to drop." Still, it is possible to have a rewarding academic career and personal life.

She urged attendees: "Don't try to separate who you are in your professional life from who you are in your personal life because that's a recipe for stress."

For more on her recent research and career path, see the SPIE Newsroom video interview .


SPIE Women in Optics logo


The SPIE Women in Optics technical community promotes personal and professional growth for women through community building and networking opportunities and by encouraging young women to choose optics as a career.

Kashiko Kodate, professor emeritus of Japan's Women's University, will be the Women in Optics speaker at SPIE Optics and Photonics in August.


Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201110.17

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