||Dr. Jennifer C. Ricklin
Physicist, Army Research Laboratory
Who or what inspired your career choice? From the time I was a little girl, I always knew I would be a scientist. I collected rocks and fossils, read my father's technical journals, and couldn't wait for the next issue of National Geographic and Scientific American. It wasn't really a conscious choice. I originally planned to major in geology, but ended up with a B.S. in physics because there was no line for advisement in the physics department. The optics came later -- it was a gradual shift from electromagnetic wave propagation through the earth's surface to electromagnetic (optical) propagation through the earth's atmosphere.
What is exciting about your work? That it is always different. There is always a new problem to solve, a new challenge to overcome. I enjoy the creative process of discovering something new or making something new that helps others. There is a certain poetry to science that appeals to me. Optics is an especially nice field because it is so interdisciplinary and touches on so may diverse technical areas.
Knowing what you know now, what educational route would you recommend for aspiring optical scientists? Begin with the fundamentals -- there is no substitute for a solid background in physics and mathematics. It is also important early on to develop your skills in technical writing and presentation, because a large part of a scientist's job is communicating results and "selling" new ideas and concepts. For graduate work, you can find good optics programs in the departments of electrical engineering, physics, or even materials science or mechanical engineering.
If you have an interest in research, it is difficult to progress without having a graduate degree, preferably a Ph.D. While a student, go to every seminar possible, even if it's not exactly in your area of interest, to expose yourself to new ideas and concepts. Many successful scientists credit the role played by one or more mentors early in their careers. Finding a mentor really just means making friends with scientists more experienced than you, watching what they do, and asking questions when you don't understand something or need help with something. Conferences sponsored by professional societies are a great way to meet others and network. But above all, enjoy what you are doing and have fun!