Learning by Teaching

13. January 2014

Takayuki Umakoshi

The people in my family are not very familiar with science. I sometimes wish that I could discuss my work with them, but it is not easy to explain my research to people without a scientific background. This is just one of the many instances in which we as scientists need to communicate our work to people without extensive scientific knowledge. Communication skills are crucial to your success—for example, when applying for government funding for your research. Even if you get tremendous results, they won’t have an impact if you cannot explain them properly and make their significance understood.

Engaging children with science
My OSA/SPIE student chapter at Osaka University, Japan, recently held an outreach activity called “Super HIKARIJUKU.” During this annual event, we invite about 50 elementary school students to our campus and showed them how fascinating science can be through optics-related experiments. This year I served as a student chair, and the event was very successful. The kids had a great time and learned a lot about light. After helping to organize the event, I realized that discussing science with children taught me some important lessons about how to communicate scientific topics with non-scientific people.

Communicating successfully
In order to get our message across to the students, we had to do a lot of research. We asked parents and teachers what the children already knew, so we were aware of their level of scientific knowledge. We also found out about the latest popular cartoon characters, so that we could use fun images and concepts that children already recognize and enjoy to engage them even further. Practicing and testing our demonstrations was also very important—we showed the experiments to non-scientific people so that they could give us advice on the best way to make ourselves understood and to get kids excited about the subject matter. It took quite a bit of planning and effort, but we ended up with a really good set of experiments. Our thoughtful, hands-on demonstrations allowed us to explain complex concepts to children who might not have understood them otherwise.

Applying these skills
The communication skills that we learned by working with children are also applicable to adults outside of our very specific fields. I discovered that you need to be able to break down complicated ideas into simple, understandable pieces so that they can be useful to a wider audience. Think about what language will be most comprehensible and interesting to your listeners. Where possible, hands-on demonstrations are extremely helpful and can make seemingly abstract concepts much more engaging. If you are capable of making your research easier to understand, then it will be much easier to communicate its importance. Through my work with OSA, I realized that outreach activities like these are not only informational for our audiences, but also teach us how to communicate effectively. Teaching is learning.
Takayuki Umakoshi (umakoshi@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka University OSA/SPIE student chapter. For more information, please check out his website: https://sites.google.com/site/takayukiumakoshiwebsites/.

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Networking through Student Conferences

20. August 2013

Shota Ushiba

We are often told about the importance of networking for furthering our careers. However, it’s not always easy for students to build these relationships, particularly as they are first starting out in their fields. In order to facilitate the creation of useful connections, the Osaka University OSA/SPIE Student Chapter, where I serve as the president, hosted an international student conference. The Asia Student Photonics Conference 2013 took place from 24-26 July at the Photonics Centre in Osaka University, Japan.
Organizing Logistics
The conference was financially supported by OSA, SPIE and other organizations. We aimed to build networks among Asian students and young researchers in the fields of optics and photonics, and to learn why networking is important, how we can create networks and what we can do with the networks. We were thrilled that more than 70 students from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Japan attended this year. It was the largest student conference we have ever hosted.
Making Connections
We conducted a variety of activities, with invited lecture sessions as a focal point. There were five guest speakers: Satoshi Kawata, Osaka University; Michael Alley, Pennsylvania State University; Prabhat Verma, Osaka University; Rinto Nakahara, President of Nanophoton Corp.and Junichiro Kono, Rice University. The speakers covered relevant career topics, including how to expand your network as a young scientist, how to communicate effectively through writing and presentations, and developing management skills. The speakers gave us clear, pragmatic answers to the issues we faced.
We also had student oral and poster presentations, group work, a social excursion and numerous coffee breaks and banquets. There was plenty of time for attendees to talk freely, which enabled us to get to know each other well. We made connections and bridged the cultural gaps between countries. I believe that these new relationships will pave the way for future research collaborations.
Becoming a Leader
My personal experience as the conference organizer was particularly enlightening and fulfilling. I arranged everything along with my colleagues, including funds, invited lecturers and student attendees. Students rarely get the opportunity to take on this kind of responsibility; it was great experience and practice for later on in my career. Throughout the three days of activities, we were thanked hundreds of times by the attendees; it was one of the most gratifying experiences that I have ever had. Our conference even inspired some of the student attendees to organize the next student conference, which will make our network wider and stronger. This sense of gratitude and shared responsibility is a great way to build up your community.
My work as the organizer of a student conference helped me to develop many abilities that I don’t often get the chance to hone. Although I sometimes struggled from taking on too many duties and had small conflicts with my colleagues over details, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I strongly recommend that you take the initiative to organize a similar event if you have the opportunity. It will broaden your perspective along with your network.
Shota Ushiba (ushiba@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student in the Kawata Lab at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka Univ. OSA/SPIE Student Chapter. Check out his website or find him on Facebook.

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From Academia to Industry, Diversity Is Key

23. April 2013

Balint Horvath

As laser pioneer Herwig Kogelnik said in an interview, “[breakthroughs] seem to be happening at the interface between disciplines.” Indeed, the precursor to the laser—the maser—was itself born outside the realm of optics, in the field of microwave engineering. Such cross-pollination can happen on a smaller scale too, in a university or industrial research lab. Regardless of whether you choose to pursue a career in academia or industry after you finish your Ph.D., chances are that you’ll need a diverse set of skills to do your job well.

I chose to step outside of academia but to remain in research: I joined the corporate research lab of a large engineering company in Switzerland called ABB. Our ultimate goal was to make a profit rather than to “merely” enrich our scientific knowledge base—quite a departure from the philosophy of my professors in graduate school. The research topic was also foreign to me, as it was more closely linked to plasma physics than optics. However, my knowledge of optical technologies helped me to understand this unfamiliar subject area, and I found it both enlightening and satisfying to dig into a vast new field. My multidisciplinary team regarded problems as challenges that we could attack from multiple angles due to our varied backgrounds.

In today’s competitive environment, companies are realizing the necessity of hiring people with a multitude of skills. This diversity ultimately benefits the organization as a whole. Studies have shown that multidisciplinary teams provide three times more high-quality solutions to problems than non-diverse ones.

For a diverse team to work together effectively, its members must have “soft” skills, such as the ability to promote trust, respect each other and exhibit kindness, in addition to their core capabilities. Just as with technical abilities, these proficiencies will vary from person to person, and a team benefits from having a variety of personalities with complementary skills.

In addition to encouraging diversity in the teams with whom you work, you should cultivate it in yourself by developing a well-rounded portfolio of personal and professional skills. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that:

• Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. This will help you to recognize what you have to offer a group and identify areas for improvement.
• Get involved. I helped to set up the first OSA student chapter in Germany in 2007 and the IONS network shortly thereafter. These activities were a fun, helpful way to make new connections.
• Truly listen to others, regardless of their place in the hierarchy. Quieting your own thinking allows you to really learn from someone else. It also shows the other person that his or her thoughts are appreciated.
• Fully immerse yourself in different cultures by occasionally traveling alone. This independence will give you the confidence you need to actively seek new challenges and experiences.
• Read about other disciplines and attend conference sessions outside your field. This will help you to cultivate new interests and find different applications for your work.

Diversifying my skills and knowledge has opened many doors for me. I encourage you to do the same and keep an open mind about the direction your career path may take. Who knows—maybe we’ll bump into each other at a conference where we both learn something new.

Balint Horvath (balint.horvath@gmail.com) received his Ph.D. in physics from the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics in 2009. Shortly afterwards he joined ABB Switzerland Ltd's Corporate Research Lab, where he conducted research related to switchgear devices. Recently, he has joined another energy company's R&D program in a lower management position.

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Making the Most of Your Ph.D. Experience in a Developing Country

9. April 2013

Angela Dudley

I like being different. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in physics is that there are very few scientists in South Africa, and even fewer female scientists. My thinking was that fewer people in the game meant less competition and more opportunities. Each year, there are only about 23 Ph.D. graduates produced per million South African citizens (and this encompasses all academic disciplines, not just the sciences.) Here, I provide a few tips for getting your Ph.D. in a country where high-level degrees are not the norm.  

Find a dynamic mentor.
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I chose the topic of my research project based not only on my interests, but also on the potential supervisors with whom it would put me in contact. Having a helpful ally is important for any graduate student, but even more so for those in a country that has fewer resources available for Ph.D. students. I had a checklist for the mentor I wanted. He or she needed to be:

• Available and approachable
• Able to provide me with the opportunity to attend and present at conferences (even if they were only local ones)
• Good at sourcing funding, and
• Well-connected in the South African science community.

While on vacation from university, I got a short-term position at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre that enabled me to test the waters for future opportunities. This was the ideal interview process: I got to see if I enjoyed the environment and the research, and my future Ph.D. supervisor was able to assess if I was a good fit for the group.

During this time, I saw that my mentor was ambitious and dynamic. He had an impeccable track record at securing funding and many local and international contacts. I could tell that, if I wanted to distinguish myself in my field, he could teach me how to do exactly that.

Be proactive. 
Where networks don’t exist, you must create them. Our student body formed local OSA and SPIE student chapters, which opened up many opportunities for me and other students, including travel grants, funds to bring in world-renowned lecturers, the possibility of hosting our own student conference (IONS) and discounts on publications. The OSA Recent Graduates program will also provide you with volunteer opportunities, so that you can gain experience and showcase your potential to science and business leaders from around the world.

Return the favor.
Admittedly, I pursued this field in part because I knew I would be a minority. But I hope this will not always be the case. I would like to encourage young people in South Africa and other developing nations to take advantage of the opportunities in the sciences and use their influence to help others along the same path. I intend to give back to the community by becoming as effective a teacher as my mentors have been for me.

Angela Dudley (ADudley@csir.co.za) conducted her Ph.D. research at the CSIR National Laser Centre based in Pretoria, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in June 2012 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and subsequently commenced her current position of Postdoctoral Fellow within the Mathematical Optics group at the CSIR National Laser Centre.

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A Frog in a Well: How Photonics Broadened my Career Perspective

2. November 2012

Yosuke Ueba

The expression “frog in a well” is sometimes used to describe a person who cannot see the big picture because of the narrow or sheltered environment in which they find themselves. It is the opposite of a “frog in a field,” which broadly surveys its environment and takes advantage of the many possibilities available to it.

When I started my Ph.D., I was a frog in a well. I was convinced that there was only a narrow range of options open to me after I graduated. I assumed that I would go into academia or industry because those were the only paths I knew about. All the other Ph.D.s I met were in one of those two worlds, and in Japan that seemed to be the natural progression that one followed.

Ph.D. students often feel like they are in a tough situation: There are precious few jobs available for them outside of academia and industry, and yet the number of opportunities within those areas appears to be even smaller.

Fortunately, I came to learn that doctoral scientists actually have potential in many fields.

So how did this frog climb out of its well? I was able to do it because the research focus of my laboratory is photonics, and because I have become part of a much larger community through my OSA student chapter.

Like many areas of interdisciplinary research—including electronics, medical science, chemistry, biology and environmental science—photonics opens the door to a wide range of fields, academic societies and contacts. I have benefitted very much from being a part of Osaka University’s OSA/SPIE student chapter; it has 27 members who are studying diverse topics represented by no less than five academic departments. After I joined the chapter, my horizontal network dramatically expanded—and so too did my career prospects. Taking part in chapter activities also broadened my knowledge and contacts for future collaborative research or the founding of a company.

Furthermore, organizing chapter events with students beyond my own lab and institution has been an invaluable experience. For example, I collaborated with others to develop outreach activities for local schools and an international student conference in Asia. This gave me insight into diverse people and job possibilities that I could not get through my daily work in my lab. It spurred me to think for the first time about career possibilities beyond industry and academia.

I got acquainted with a group called Kashin Juku though personal networks that I had through my photonics and student chapter connections. Kashin Juku derives from the famous school for western learning named Tekijuku school, which was established in 1838; it educated many excellent people from broad fields who would come to play an important role in Japan's Meiji Restoration. We invited leading doctors from many fields—for example, a  politician, a novelist, a financier, a consultant, a corporate manager and a journalist—to talk about how having a Ph.D. expanded their potential in their chosen careers. These fruitful discussions broadened my view of the options one has available to them after acquiring a doctoral degree.

While I once believed that Ph.D.s have few options in Japan, the field of photonics and my student activities have shown me otherwise. I haven’t yet decided exactly how I will contribute to society, but I know I want to make effective use of my education and to make my career meaningful. Nowadays, this frog is right where he belongs: in the field.

Yosuke Ueba (yosuke.ueba@gmail.com) is a graduate student in photonics at Osaka University in Japan. He is president of Osaka Univ. OSA/SPIE Student Chapter, and he established Osaka Univ. JSAP (Japan Society of Applied Physics) Student Chapter in 2012. His research interests include thermal emission, plasmonics and metamaterials. To discuss or collaborate with him, visit him on Facebook

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