What is the Purpose of Your Research?

25. June 2014

Carlos Hernández-García

What are you investigating? What can it be used for? Scientists are often asked these questions. The answers may be easy for those doing applied research; but what about those doing fundamental research?

Since starting my research in ultrafast laser science at the University of Salamanca, Spain, my friends and family have been asking me these kinds of questions. At first I supplied quick answers that could immediately satisfy their queries, like “lasers will help us to treat tumors,” or “lasers will improve communications.” While true, my answers had little to do with my research of strong field laser-matter interactions. But how can I justify following the dynamics of fancy electrons as they are ionized from atoms and travel with different behaviors? And, more importantly, do I need to justify it?
 
Scientists doing fundamental research try to discover and explain phenomena in nature regardless of their work having immediate technological applications. In today’s tech-savvy world, many people undervalue fundamental research. I believe judging scientific work, theoretical or experimental, by utility alone is unwise. Scientific discovery is, in itself, important enough that it does not need to be justified. Like other non-applied disciplines, such as art, fundamental research is largely motivated by the desire to observe the beauty of the world.
 
Great scientific breakthroughs can arise from simultaneous discoveries in fundamental and applied research. But sometimes it takes years for fundamental research to advance the field enough to allow useful applications to evolve. One of the most obvious examples of this is Albert Einstein’s research. Over 100 years ago, Einstein laid the foundations of quantum physics—a groundbreaking theory based on mathematical principles. I doubt that he could have imagined that his theory would become the foundation for the creation of the laser. Without Einstein’s fundamental discoveries, we would not have the Internet, DVDs, laser printers or refractive surgery, nor any of the other applications made possible by lasers.
 
Wolfgang Ketterle, 2001 Nobel laureate in Physics, said:
 
"You can say two things about investing in fundamental research. You don’t know how it will pay off. But you can be absolutely confident that it will pay off, handsomely, because in one way or another it always has.” 1
 
Fundamental research does not need to have an immediate applied purpose. Research gives us knowledge that enriches the human condition—this alone motivates countless numbers of scientists every day. Like Einstein, they may not see direct technological applications from their research; but their contributions to the field will enable scientists in the future to make technological breakthroughs.
 
1 Extracted from the interview: “The truth about the universe
 
I’d like to acknowledge Prof. Luis Plaja and Dr. Ricardo Torres for fruitful discussions on this topic.
 
Carlos Hernández-García is a postdoctoral Marie Curie fellow at JILA, University of Colorado (USA). He completed his Ph.D. in Physics in the University of Salamanca, Spain. His research is focused on strong field physics, ultrashort laser sources and attosecond to zeptosecond science. Carlos writes a blog in Spanish about attosecond science.

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Pursuing Science in South Africa

19. June 2014

Yaseera Ismail

I have worked and studied at South African universities since beginning my undergraduate degree. I started my research career at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of 10 national research facilities, and I am currently based in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Here, I will reflect on some of my experiences studying in South Africa.

Freedom of choice

One benefit of attending university in South Africa is the unique structure of the degree system. The arrangement is unusual in that there are four exit points during the completion of three degrees. We start off with a three-year Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree, followed by a year of honors studies. The masters and doctoral degrees begin after the honors year. If you are not pursuing a career in research, you have the option of completing your education after earning a B.Sc. This allows students to tailor our honors year material to the research area we wish to pursue during our M.Sc. and Ph.D., and so we are more prepared and focused when beginning those higher-level degrees.

Availability of resources and funding

South Africa has a growing scientific community, but the opportunities for collaboration and networking are still limited. This can impact the level of research and the growth of facilities taking place in the country. If you are trying to build a research group, it may take more effort and time than other places. However, the lack of certain resources encourages us to look elsewhere for necessary expertise. This helps us build relationships with researchers across the globe. There is also funding available to promote and host national and international conferences, and there are extensive online resources to help fill any gaps.

A prerequisite for registering for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree at any South African university is a source of funding for the duration of your studies. Most candidates are awarded a scholarship either by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation or national facilities such as the CSIR. The South African government recently set a target of spending 1.5 percent of its budget on research and development by 2018. Funding is also provided by universities such as UKZN, which has its own scholarship program.

Networking opportunities

I have been fortunate enough to attend 22 academic conferences since completing my M.Sc. Conferences are excellent platforms to grow within your field and expand your network of colleagues and friends. There is one major national physics conference in South Africa, known as the South African Institute of Physics Conference. It is hosted annually by various institutes and is currently in its 59th year. My research group also hosts the Quantum Information Processing Communication and Control (QIPCC) Conference each year. This meeting is focused on quantum optics and information science, and is an initiative of the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.

Joining professional associations is also a great way to network, and there are several options in South Africa. The South African Institute of Physics is a prominent association for researchers. It has student memberships and provides discounts for student conferences. There are also three OSA Student Chapters: Durban, Pretoria and Stellenbosch. I am part of the newly formed Student Chapter at the UKZN, Durban. Since we joined OSA, we have had numerous avenues opened to us. I recently attended an IONS conference in Montreal, Canada, which was a wonderful experience for me and gave me lots of ideas for growing our Chapter at UKZN.

As a South African student, networking opportunities and the increasing availability of resources have played a major role in expanding my opportunities as a young researcher. I am happy to be contributing to the developing community of scientists in my country.

Yaseera Ismail completed her masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in quantum communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Conferences, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

Building Your “Soft Skills”

5. June 2014

Lauren Celano

This post was adapted from content on the Propel Careers website and BioCareers.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

I often advise Ph.D. students on career planning and the various job options available to them. When I ask them to discuss their specific skills, many of them focus only on their research and technical skills. These are “hard skills,” such as genetics, computer science, chemistry or pharmacology. When I inquire about “soft skills,” I am often met with looks of confusion. Below are a few examples of “soft skills” that can help scientists become well-rounded job candidates in many different fields.

Teamwork
A Ph.D. student who works on a multi-disciplinary project team, for example, a cell biologist who works with a biochemist and a pharmacologist to understand a disease pathway, must have good teamwork skills to be successful. The same is true for someone who works on or leads a collaborative project with other labs in and outside of their institution, industry partners and foundations. These experiences provide examples that can be shared with potential employers to illustrate how one successfully worked on or led a team and learned through the process of working with others.

Non-Technical Writing
Many scientists are accustomed to writing manuscripts, grants, review articles, and of course, the ever-popular thesis. While this type of scientific communication is important, the ability to communicate with those outside your field of study is invaluable.

In fact, Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” To develop these skills, students can make an effort to write for different sources, such as the school newspaper, departmental newsletter, association publication or a personal blog.

Verbal Communication
Public speaking is a valuable asset for the career scientist. Students can build this skill through teaching and speaking at conferences, departmental meetings, association conferences, as well as foundation and charity events. One should also take on leadership roles in student organizations and associations (for example, OSA Student Chapters) as well as groups such as Toastmasters.

Networking
Formal and informal networking opportunities are everywhere; you just need to know where to look. Examples include participation in student government, technical interest groups and clubs and professional and industry organizations. Some professional organizations even have student affiliates.

More generally, you can find networking avenues are through common interest, advocacy and charitable groups, and social and professional networking events. In fact, I would bet that there is a networking opportunity to be had just about every night of the week. You just have to be willing to seek it out, and more importantly, gather the courage to attend and participate. You never know who you might meet—it’s truly up to you.

In today’s job market, hard skills are not always enough to get you into that perfect role. Employers are looking for “the whole package”: people who have the right mix of both soft and hard skills. Take the initiative to immerse yourself in opportunities to grow and develop in new directions. The effort will pay off.

Lauren Celano (lauren@propelcareers.com) is the co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences companies.

 

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