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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Finding the Right Internship as a Grad Student

24. September 2010

By Patricia Daukantas

In grad school, there's always plenty of work to be had through teaching or research assistant positions within your academic department. But if you want to broaden your exposure to different areas of research, or try on a different career path for size, an internship can be a great opportunity. You can spend part of your graduate career at another institution, get a public policy fellowship on Capitol Hill, or work in a nearby industrial lab.

But be aware that grad-school internships are not the same as the ones from undergraduate days. In many programs, you aren't expected to do an internship, so you will need to find such opportunities on your own—and then make the case to your professors that the off-site job is worth the time away from the laboratory.

The Career Focus column in the December issue of Optics & Photonics News will present case studies of three OSA young professionals who found success in internships before and during their graduate studies. Here are some advice and ideas gleaned from them:

Look at national funding agencies. In the United States, the National Physical Science Consortium offers graduate fellowships to U.S. citizens at several government laboratories. The U.S. National Science Foundation also provides a list of graduate-level opportunities, although not all of them are relevant to optics and photonics. Canadians can check out the Technology Exploitation and Networking (TEN) program offered by the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations.

If you're applying to graduate school, consider programs that already offer internships. For example, the University of New Mexico offers an internship option as one possible track toward an M.S. in optics. However, the student must do the internship at a nearby employer, so this option is most appealing to students already working at a local government laboratory, says Luke F. Lester, who heads the UNM graduate program in optical science and engineering.

Schools with a heavy focus on technology transfer—such as the University of Central Florida's CREOL—often encourage graduate students and faculty to partner with local photonics companies in order to help them create successful applications based on optics research. Internships are likely welcomed.

Prepare for paperwork. You (not your adviser) are responsible for visa applications, temporary work permits and other documents needed for an internship in another country. Even if you're working locally, you may have to write up a formal proposal beforehand or a written summary of the work you've done and how it ties in with your graduate research.

Keep an open mind. You may think you were hired as an intern for your expertise in nonlinear optics and then find yourself working in silicon photonics or on a terahertz-imaging system. You may need to learn how to use totally different lab equipment and/or software. It may be scary at first, but take it all in stride. Ultimately the internship will broaden your skills and make you more confident about your ability to handle new challenges.

That said, if an internship is so unstructured that you are not learning anything new or you are spending the vast majority of your time on administrative tasks, speak up. A good internship should benefit both you and your employer.

Ask questions. Use your inquiring mind to find out what other people outside your immediate workgroup are doing. You may discover a new interest that you never knew you had, or you might find interesting parallels with your own research.

Keep in touch. Your mentors and fellow interns may end up being future colleagues or mentors. At the very least, you'll already know some people the next time you go to a scientific meeting.

Bottom line: For motivated students, internships just during or after your graduate career can expose you to new research topics and valuable contacts that can pay dividends down the line.

Patricia Daukantas is the senior writer/editor for OPN. She holds a master's degree in astronomy from the University of Maryland.

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