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Arizona students organize successful IONS-NA2 conference

By Dirk Fabian

Students from the University of Arizona and 25 other colleges and universities took part in 2+ days of science research talks in optics, professional development events, and social gatherings for the IONS-NA2 conference.  Billed as "by students, for students," IONS is completely organized and run by student volunteers.  A core team of 10 students at the UofA lead by Stefano Young built the conference, utilizing the significant resources of the 95 member Student Optics Chapter at the university and the facilities of the College of Optical Sciences. 

SPIE supported this conferences with travel grants to both student attendees and keynote speaker Prof. Joseph Shaw ("Optics in Nature") from Montana State University in Bozeman. Additionally, Prof. Charles Falco presented his work on the use of optics by early 15th century painters and Dr. Ekaterina Golovchenko presented on "Technologies and Challenges in Fiber Optic Communication Systems."  Giorgio Volpe, IONS founder, and now editor of Optics & Photonics Focus gave an introduction to the online optics magazine as a venue for student writing on technical topics. 

However, the real story of this conference is the significant power of volunteers and partnerships to accomplish lofty goals.  Numerous individuals, companies, and organizations all contributed to the success of the conference.  Tim Renkowski coordinated housing for all the out-of-town attendees, finding host homes where students could stay while in Tucson to avoid expensive hotel costs. Paula Smith, a 5th year student in optics, alone brought in $7000 in grant funding from companies and organizations to supply student travel grants.  CIAN, the Center for Integrated Access Networks, also supported attendence for a number of students working on optics for computing and data communication.

With a volunteer student conference, the organizers have the chance to try new ways of facilitating interaction among the attendees - really a chance to do things differently than traditional meetings. Attendees clearly appreciated this less formal venue as well. A number of times during the talks, I heard a grad student exclaim, "Well, my advisor isn't here so I can do this!" and then proceed to explain their work in some humerous, visual, or physical way (and by this, I do mean dancing). These different forms of explanation really added to the accessiblity of the complex science that goes into each of these research projects.  Nevertheless, these were some of the best science talks I have seen, and this version of IONS should erase some of the perception of student meetings as amateur affairs fraught with glitches and half-realized plans.  

The topic of career development in optics was on center stage at the conference, starting with a panel discussion with optics community luminaries. The Arizona alums on the panel provided a perspective on finding, getting, and switching jobs within the small-world network of the optics community.  Forming a reputation starts early - in grad school - and companies, especially smaller ones, have the connections and motivation to check in on yours.  Likewise, companies also have reputations, and job seekers should work their professional network for information about the company culture and finances of a company before agreeing to work there. 

A talk from Peter Fiske, author of "Put Your Science to Work" and optics business founder, formed the cornerstone of the IONS professional development program.  Fiske described how scientists, especially graduate students, exhibit a lot of the similar traits of natural athletes - they can be dropped into a new environment with minimal orientation and still succeed.  There were many great career development ideas in Fiske's talk, but the best one was about the process itself. "Career planning starts with self-assessment," said Fiske, "followed by exploration." 

The last tip from Fiske suggested that students need to manage their e-persona. Primarily this is done by keeping social networking sites professional, but Fiske also suggested keeping your CV private.  The CV has a alot of personal information that cannot be appropriately tailored for an audience.  Fiske suggested replacing the online CV with a written biography that puts your accomplishments and history in to a narative form.

Videos and photos from the talks and conference events are available on YouTube and Picasa.

YouTube Video Gallery

IONS was started originally by students from the Institute for Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona as a way to bring some of the student networking present at Society conferences to students in Europe.  It has since migrated across the ocean to the United States.  The first North American IONS meeting took place in the fall of 2009 at the University of Maryland.