Career Advice from Women in Optics

10th anniversary of SPIE Women in Optics calendar.

01 January 2014
Karen Thomas

The optics and photonics professionals featured in the new SPIE Women in Optics calendar often say they were inspired by teachers, professors, or parents who encouraged them to continue on a path not generally pursued by women.

Visit the SPIE Women in Optics pageThe 28 women featured in the 2014-2015 calendar share stories of inspiration and discuss the challenges and rewards of their careers and the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

SPIE member Lynore Abbott’s grandmother wasn’t allowed to attend college, because she was, “only a girl.” Her grandmother went on to train as a pilot and later opened a machine shop with Abbott’s grandfather.

These experiences, and her grandmother’s love of building things, inspired Abbott to study engineering and eventually create her own company, Logical Marketing, which provides support to photonics and technology companies.

Encouraging the next generation

To receive a copy of the SPIE Women in Optics calendar, email

In the preface of the 10th annual SPIE Women in Optics calendar, SPIE Fellow and member of the SPIE Board of Directors Kathleen Richardson of University of Central Florida (USA) asks women to “consider how you’ve been influenced by someone who took a moment to share a little something with you and how you have ‘paid it forward.’

“Your communication to others, especially those in their early professional stage, can have a lasting impression and impact,” she says. “This is what matters if we are all to continue our movement forward.”

The greatest inspiration for SPIE member Eriko Watanabe of the University of Electro-Communications (Japan) was her mentor and PhD supervisor, SPIE Fellow Kashiko Kodate, of Japan Women’s University.

“My decision to undertake optical research was heavily influenced by her advice and attitude towards work and life,” says Watanabe. “My interactions with female researchers in Japan and abroad have encouraged me to stay active in science and engineering.”

An eye-opening inspiration for Allison Lami Sawyer, CEO and cofounder of Rebellion Photonics (USA) came from her high-school calculus teacher who asked Sawyer if she planned to study engineering at university. When Sawyer answered no, her teacher’s reply was, “Don’t be stupid. You’d be a great engineer.”

Sawyer went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics as well as two master’s degrees, and her company was named the Wall Street Journal Startup of the Year in November.

Inspiration can also come from outside the classroom, in the form of others who have moved past stereotypes and have succeeded despite obstacles placed in their path.

SPIE Fellow Kyle J. Myers of the US Food and Drug Administration recalls Marcia McBeath, the first female PhD Myers ever met, as her biggest role model. McBeath, a psychologist and author, attained her degree from Stanford University while raising four young children. “She was a great example of making it all work – a career, marriage, and family,” Myers says.

Emily Gallagher of IBM Microelectronics, (USA) was influenced by her mother who studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s when very few “co-eds” were there. Her mother’s experience taught Gallagher to respect engineering and science and showed her that technical fields were open to women.

Women in the business side of optics

Business and marketing play important roles in driving the photonics industry and getting new ideas launched.

SPIE member Marisa Edmund, executive vice president of marketing at Edmund Optics (USA), is dedicated to continually learning the science behind optics. “Speaking the language of optics and learning as much as possible about our products is critical to my own development and our marketing efforts,” Edmund says. “I have the unique opportunity to see what’s new in optics and connect with customers on how these products can be utilized.”

SPIE member Amy Eskilson’s career in the business side of science began almost by accident. After studying broadcasting at university, she joined the advertising department of Thorlabs (USA) – a then fledgling photonics catalog company.

Now president and CEO of Inrad Optics (USA), Eskilson has learned over the years not to let preconceived limitations based on gender get in the way. Her career advice: “Assume any barrier you face is addressable with training, education, experience, or grit,” Eskilson says.

Many roads lead to … STEM

STEM education programs seek ways to get students, especially girls, actively engaged in science at an early age. While more women are obtaining degrees in STEM than 30 years ago, there are still fewer girls than boys enrolling in STEM courses and a low ratio of women employed in these fields. Despite the lingering stereotype that girls aren’t really interested in science and math, women are making advances in STEM.

The founder of Laser Classroom (USA), Colette DeHarpporte, believes there are “almost endless possibilities” for women who pursue studies in STEM. Through her company, DeHarpporte collaborates with teachers on developing curricula for making science education available to all students.

“Learning about STEM makes the world more interesting and more meaningful, whatever you do,” says DeHarpporte. “STEM is broader and more inclusive than you can imagine, and it will give you the opportunity to put your mark on the world.”

Jana Sanne Huisman, the Photonics21 Young Ambassador of Photonics Education, encourages girls to try a variety of subjects within STEM. Huisman, an SPIE student member at Universität Bonn (Germany), believes that STEM “unlocks new decisions, paths, and alternate worlds – whereby many roads lead to Rome.”

SPIE member Susan Tousi, vice president of engineering at Illumina, describes STEM as, “the most exciting career path imaginable.” She points out that science and engineering are driving the future and that to continue this forward motion, the best and brightest minds will need to be on the job.

“Many of my highest technical contributors have been women,” Tousi says. “We must make use of this rich talent base to make our dreams of the future a reality.”

Bold and confident women in optics

Despite advances made by women in science and engineering, obstacles still exist. In such situations, persistence is key.

In male-dominated fields, women are often required to work more than their male colleagues to achieve the same position, says Florenta Costache of Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems (Germany). “It is difficult for women, but not impossible, and more and more women find ways to achieve these positions,” she says.

Jennifer Decker, counselor for science and technology at the Canadian Embassy, Berlin, (left) at SPIE Optical Metrology in May 2013 with SPIE member Robert Corriveau, president and executive director of the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations.

Jennifer Decker, a science and technology adviser at the Canadian Embassy in Germany, adds that women pursuing technical careers should “be bold and confident. “There is power in that – and remember to smile,” Decker says.

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

The SPIE Women in Optics monthly planner showcases the work of women in the field of optics and photonics as inspiration and encouragement to prospective researchers and scientists.

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


17 SPIE members in Women in Optics 2014 calendar

Of the 28 women featured in the Women in Optics 2014-15 planner, 17 are SPIE members.

  • Senior Member Mona Jarrahi, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (USA)
  • Yanqiu Li, Beijing Institute of Technology (China)
  • Ann Roberts, University of Melbourne (Australia)
SPIE Women in Optics at Photonics West

Sonia Garcia-Blanco of Universiteit Twente (Netherlands) will serve as moderator for a panel discussion, “Transitions: Graduating from Academia to Industry,” at SPIE Photonics West 2014.

Open to all conference attendees in San Francisco, this discussion on 3 February will feature women who are recent graduates and now working in the photonics industry sharing experiences of their transition from academic to industry engineer.

Panelists are Diana Warren, Spectra-Physics (Newport), and SPIE members Michelle Xu of Intel,  Christina CC Willis, Vision Engineering Solutions, Anna-Britt Mahler, Aerospace Corp., Jessica DeGroote Nelson, Optimax Systems, and Garam Young, Synopsys.

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