Bright Futures Q&A: Debbie Berebichez

28. September 2016

OPN recently had the opportunity to talk with Debbie Berebichez about an increasingly hot topic for physics graduates: careers in data science.

Berebichez received her Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Stanford University, Calif., USA, but opted to not pursue an academic career. Instead, she sought out roles unexplored by most scientists. Berebichez first combined her love for communicating science in her online video series, “Science Babe: The Science of Everyday Life.” In these videos, she explained basic science, like the inner workings of a microwave oven. The videos attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey, and in 2007, Berebichez was invited to be the keynote speaker at a conference on women’s leadership organized by Winfrey and her team. From there, Berebichez went on to host scientific television shows—even while working a day job on Wall Street.

Berebichez is now the chief data scientist at Metis, a data science-training company. Here, she tells us of her unique path to this burgeoning field and how other physicists can make the same transition.

OPN: Many would assume physics and data science are quite different. Tell us about your journey from one field to the other.

I decided to leave academia in 2009, and that’s when I became aware of “quants”—physicists and mathematicians on Wall Street.

I met physicists who were happy applying their quantitative skills on Wall Street, so I decided to try it. I first worked for a year for a quantitative hedge fund. I enjoyed it. What I was doing there—even though it didn’t have the name of data science—was essentially data science … I found the math fascinating and challenging.

OPN: You then spent six years on Wall Street. Can you elaborate on how you were eventually introduced to data science as a field?

I heard of data science late in the game; I guess I had never heard the term. My friend Hilary Mason, a renowned data scientist, invited me to speak at a conference called DataGotham. I talked about my work in finance. People approached me at the end claiming that what I was talking about was data science. That was funny, because for me it’s always been quantitative science—I didn’t really know what data science was. I started to find out more and more.

I left Wall Street, and it was quite easy, actually, to find a job in data science. They really crave people with physics backgrounds. Plus, if you’ve had some experience with Wall Street, they really like that combination.

OPN: Metis, your current company data offers science boot camps—intensive courses lasting a short time. These seem to be quite popular. Can you tell us more about them?

Our boot camp is a 12-week immersive program held in either New York, N.Y., USA or San Francisco, Calif., USA. Our instructors are experienced senior data scientists. They teach students about Python (a programming language), statistics and algorithms. Students also learn about machine-learning, deep-learning and big-data tools such as Hadoop and Spark.

The boot camp is structured around project-based learning. Students complete five projects throughout the 12 weeks. At the end of the program, students present their final project in front of an audience of companies that will hopefully hire them.

OPN: How does one become a student at a (Metis) boot camp?

We have an admissions process that’s just like a university’s. Applicants get two interviews with instructors where they (the applicants) answer technical questions. We admit about 35 to 40 percent of our applicants.

If we feel that an applicant is going to struggle in a boot camp, we’ll reject them. We let them know where their weaknesses are so that they can apply in the future. We’ve had many people who’ve come back to us that way. We also give about 60 hours of pre-work, to get participants up to speed with what they’ll be learning, and to homogenize backgrounds.

OPN: Boot camp sounds intense. How do students adjust?

We deal with the “imposter complex” quite a bit the first few weeks. We tell students that we want the water level to be at their neck, so they’re not completely drowning, but it’s not the shallow end where people can comfortably walk. This way everybody feels challenged.

Boot camp feels like an incomplete process, because it doesn’t feel like you master everything. But that’s part of what data science is, since it’s such a complex field. You’re never going to know everything; you’re never going to master all the algorithms. As long as students are comfortable looking things up and thinking on their own, then we’ve done our job. But it is a challenge.

OPN: If somebody’s coming into data science from a physics background, what are the holes that somebody in that position might need to fill?

You will realize—if you try to move into data science—that physics is an immense gift. Physics is the basis for so many things; it helps people acquire the essential skills of data science—how to solve problems and how to communicate the solution of those problems to stakeholders—no matter what field you’re in. I haven’t seen any other type of preparation that is better at taking the plunge and solving problems than a physics background.

OPN: What is the best way to prepare for a career in data science?

Boot camp is certainly a great option; we’ve had many physics students and other quantitative backgrounds come through the boot camp run. The biggest challenge is the softer skills like communication … it’s almost like they get rusty with that after spending many years in the lab or in academia.

Besides the boot camp, there are plenty of resources out there. There are many Coursera courses online—even universities are getting on the wagon and offering data science courses (though my own view is that those tend to be very slow compared to the boot camps).

OPN: Is there a place in data science for those who are further along in their careers? Say a mid-career professional in optics wanted to make a career change—would data science be accommodating to someone in that situation?

I would venture to say that Metis’ oldest student was close to 60. The incredible thing is that the salaries that you start with in data science are a lot higher than the ones that people have in academia or research.

It’s very interesting to see people who are mid-management or at the executive level in their careers come and be humbled by this boot camp—it’s challenging ... They definitely go through this sort of shaky month or two. They question if they’ll ever come out successful on the other side.

OPN: But you’ve had mid-level or executive level professionals find success in boot camp, yes?

Yes. Many of the students, once they get the hang of it and learn it’s okay to get your hands dirty, and not be the best for three months—and really try to learn as much as you can—are the students that are older and get amazing positions. They renew themselves and have this new lease on their professional life, because they never thought at 45, 50 or 55 they would be able to get jobs.

OPN: What are the big growth areas in data science going to be?

There are many cutting-edge techniques. For example, natural-language processing is applied to many different fields­­—from marketing to artificial intelligence (AI) and spatial analysis. Medical device companies use data science. Anything that has to do with what’s called the “Internet of Things,” like putting sensors everywhere to optimize climate control in a factory, or to optimize the driving of a driverless car, also use data science.

All the independent AI stuff requires an immense amount of data science power … it’s a huge, booming industry hiring data scientists. Therefore, anything that’s related to products that collect data—and needs to be analyzed for insight—requires data science.

OPN: Data science has also made its way into traditionally less technical fields. Tell us about some of the advances there.

There’s quantitative marketing. Many online ad agencies struggle to know the impact of their ad campaign; they want to have smart advertising. They’re not happy with simply putting an ad on TV and not knowing. Obviously, that industry has evolved a tremendous amount.

Even trading companies like DataMiner (who trade based on social network data) do a sensitivity analysis to see, for example, what items are becoming popular on Twitter before Black Friday. They apply data analysis techniques to know how to influence the market and sell different products.

OPN: What sort of companies are hiring data scientists?

All the big online companies, like Facebook and Google, are constantly looking for data scientists because they want to be able to recommend products to people, and they want the recommendations to be refined and targeted. They use machine-learning methods, like collaborative filtering and classification algorithms to find people like you. They’re recommending what they have bought or find your historical pattern and recommend products based on that.

OPN: What sort of innovative work is coming out of data science?

I find deep learning to be fascinating. It’s part of this cutting-edge area that combines machine learning with neural networks. Neural networks were something that physicists tried to use many years ago, but didn’t have the computing power. Now it’s a way of finding the answer to deep questions, including science questions. I believe IBM’s Watson may be using this with their successful bio part. That’s an area that’s more cutting-edge, and companies that are doing virtual reality and AI are getting into it.

OPN: You’re speaking at the Strata conference on how data can be misleading through the poor use of statistics. Can you tell us more about this?

I think that’s a question that is deep in my heart. Coming from physics, I want to teach data science not as a memorization book, but as a critical thinking exercise. But that experience of people working very closely with data—and being incredibly savvy at manipulating data—and yet not knowing what they’re doing, that is everywhere in data science. It’s really alerted me to the necessity of having people think through their datasets and what they’re doing, before they become savvy at data mining.

Dr. Debbie Berebichez is the chief data scientist at Metis. She is also a physicist, TV host and STEM advocate. She graduated from Stanford University, Calif., USA, with a Ph.D. in Physics, and received undergraduate degrees from Brandeis University, Mass., USA. Berebichez is a co-host on Discovery Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science TV show.

Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography

Career Path, Nontraditional Science Careers, Profiles

Bright Futures Q&A: Michelle Xu

27. October 2014

 

OPN: Many people in science initially envision themselves in an academic career. Was that your initial goal? If not, what career trajectory were you envisioning for yourself?

I did not initially consider an academic career because I was told that I was not smart. On one of my first grade tests, I thought that 1+1=11.

As I got older, however, I discovered “grit”, and started to excel academically as well as in sports, art and music. When it was time to pick a college major, I had the option to attend programs in fine arts, business or engineering. The three disciplines, all of which I loved, sat in orthogonal planes. There was no Venn diagram or spreadsheet could help evaluate the pros and cons, so instead I relied on my instincts. Ultimately I wanted to engage in a practical and tangible discipline, so, I picked engineering.

My career goal is to provide solutions that benefit society, such as sensors and computing devices that collect, store, and analyze data to forecast trends and enable preventative measures. Private sector organizations like Intel work closely with the end-users and the products, and so I believe my goals can be implemented and achieved much faster here.

OPN: How did you end up at Intel?

I have a long history with the company—my first job offers after completing both my undergraduate degree and doctorate were from Intel. However, after both offers, I felt I needed to learn more basic science and satisfy my inquisitive mind, so I decided to stay in school. By the time I was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, I had studied electronics, photonics, control theory, programming, cell molecular biology, chemistry and atomic physics.

While I was contemplating how to apply all that I had learned in my almost 30-year academic career, an Intel manager found and recruited me. This time, I joined the company. Now, I am more knowledgeable and confident, and I am able to better contribute to Intel’s roadmap. I’m glad that I waited.

OPN: What was it like to transition from your lab to a large company like Intel?

It was great transitioning from Berkeley to Intel. I find it very exciting to start a new role in a new setting and to meet new people. Of course, I don’t move just for the excitement; instead, I pursue opportunities. I would be willing to relocate to the middle of a war zone for a good position—I have a very high tolerance for the difficulties associated with transitions like this, so there’s little I’m not willing to do for the right opportunity.

OPN: What is the culture like at Intel? How does it differ from other environments you’ve worked in?

Intel has 107,600 employees around the world, so the company culture is not homogeneous. Just like studying in different academic groups, the departments at Intel can vary greatly. I have held two positions at Intel: research assistant to Intel President Renee James, and engineer in the Intel Data Center Group. The culture in the first group is very professional and office-like, while the engineering group is similar to a university research lab setting.

OPN: What is your typical work day like and how does that differ from other work settings you’ve been in?

I have held two vastly different positions at Intel, so it really depends on the specific role. As the assistant to the president, I started working at 5:30 am and my days ended when I went to bed at 9:00 pm.

Now, as the data center engineer, my days start at 8:30 am. Because my team is distributed around the world, I work around the clock. Also, because I work with physical servers, I often stay in the server lab late into the evenings.

OPN: What are some of your own, personal characteristics that made the move to an industry career look particularly attractive?

I am compassionate, result-oriented, meticulous yet impatient, and ethically-minded. I am grateful that Intel values these qualities, in addition to my technical competencies.

OPN: What advice would you give to others looking to work with a large company such as Intel?

Regardless of whether you work for a large or small organization, it is important that you discover the career path that is best for you as an individual, by following your instinct and finding your passion.

Michelle Ye-Chen Xu is a member of the Intel Data Center Group, where she works in server rack networking and integration. Xu also served as the research assistant to Intel President Renee James. She received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from University of Toronto, Canada, and was a postdoctoral fellow in atomic physics at U.C. Berkeley, USA. Xu was the President of University ofToronto OSA Student Chapter.

 

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Career Paths: A Conversation with Jannick Rolland

29. May 2013

OSA Director-at-Large Jannick Rolland talks with Optics & Photonics News about her path to academia. Thanks to OSA member Brooke Hester for working with Jannick to gather her insights.

What is your background prior to becoming a professor?

I was a postdoc at an academic institution that evolved into a research staff position. I was there for a total of six years. 

How did you enter academia?

My funding was beginning to dry up, so I decided that it was time to look for a new position. Shortly thereafter I spoke with my former advisor at an OSA Annual meeting, and he recommended that I tell everyone that I was looking for a job. So that’s exactly what I did. I mentioned to an old classmate that I was back on the job market, and he introduced me to M.J. Soileau, who was then the director of the Center for Research and Education on Optics and Lasers (CREOL) at the University of Central Florida. About eight months after that meeting, I applied at CREOL and was offered a position. I also interviewed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; however, because I was not a U.S. citizen at the time, I decided that it was not my best option. 

What are your current responsibilities?

A few years ago, I joined the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. I am currently a chair professor, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering, the director of the R.E. Hopkins Center and also the director of the planned NSF Center for Freeform Optics. My responsibilities are teaching, research, mentoring students on every aspect of their work (and sometimes on a more personal level) and serving the Institute of Optics, my university, various societies and scientific communities locally and globally. For example, I am a professor invitee at the Institute d'Optique in France , and I help teach some short courses in optical instrumentation. 

How does your role now differ from your previous roles?

My responsibilities have only grown over time. Now, in addition to my other tasks, I have to raise funds to support as many as 20 people and keep them employed through economic ups and downs. That is considerably more accountability than I had as a graduate student focused on my Ph.D. topic, or as a postdoc working on only a couple of projects.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

It was securing funding for my research in instrumentation innovation. This work requires working in multiple disciplines, and getting funding can be quite difficult—particularly because it can take years to complete a project. Although the National Institutes of Health was a good fit for my work, it was difficult to obtain grants from there because my institution was not well-positioned for medical research. I had to develop a business strategy that allowed me to focus on the science, rather than just fundraising. It hasn’t been easy, but I still have a passion for medical instrumentation, and I have succeeded through relentless effort.

What advice would you give to others looking to break into academia?

Get as much experience as you can as a postdoc or research scientist for up to three years before entering the tenure track. Your mentors during this period will be your advocates for life. If possible, also work in industry for up to six years. Try to get a position in a reputable company, so that you can build your network along with your skills. Look for an institution that fits with your long term goals. That said, you can make some shorter-term strategic decisions while building your long-term plans and looking for the best way to advance your vision.

Jannick Rolland (rolland@optics.rochester.edu) is the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering and Director of the R.E. Hopkins Center for Optical Design & Engineering and the Planned Center for Freeform Optics at the University of Rochester.

 

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The Benefits of an Industry Internship: OPN Talks with Jung Park

24. May 2012

This week, OPN talks with Jung Park, an OSA recent graduate member. Jung found an industry internship with Intel Corporation while completing his Ph.D. in 2010 at the University of California, San Diego, U.S.A.  He discusses how he got the internship and why he believes Ph.D. students can benefit from stepping outside of academia, whether or not they decide to stay there.

 OPN: What made you decide to pursue an internship in industry?

Jung: During my graduate studies, I was mostly encouraged to pursue a career in academia. While I had some interest in doing so, I wasn’t certain that I was ready to commit to the long and arduous path to a tenured position at a university. When the time came to decide what to do next, I kept myself open to a variety of options, including jobs in industry as well as positions in government research labs and academia. I started researching to find out what types of positions I could pursue after I graduated.

OPN: How did you get your internship?

Jung: While attending the Frontiers in Optics conference, I met someone who worked for Intel Corporation in photonics research and development and discovered that the company was offering an internship. I interviewed for the position and was fortunate enough to receive an offer.  Although I came upon the internship somewhat by chance, I recognized it as a unique opportunity and jumped at it without hesitation.

OPN: How did you benefit from your internship?

Jung: I benefitted in a number of ways. Technically, the work was quite interesting and challenging, but it was very different than what I had done in an academic setting. While in graduate school, I had the freedom to satisfy my intellectual curiosity by conducting my own experiments. As an intern, however, I was working with a larger team of people that had a broad range of technical backgrounds and areas of expertise. We had to deliver on much more clearly defined goals. In a fairly short time, I became exposed to a variety of research areas.

Ultimately, being part of such a team gave me a new perspective and helped me to identify my place in the field. Although I found my graduate project interesting, I did not feel like I was working on something real until I applied what I had learned to my work in industry. Over the course of my graduate research, I became less interested in “pushing” ideas produced from research in the hope that they would be adopted for commercial or practical applications. Instead, I became more intrigued by the idea of “pulling” innovative solutions from demonstrated principles to solve real world problems.
While in academia, I worked to discover new principles and sought to produce high-impact publications. After working in industry, I realize that what I find most rewarding is not publications, citations and recognition, but rather developing the potential of a burgeoning technology.

OPN: What advice would you give to graduate students considering an industry internship?

Jung: I would highly encourage any graduate student to consider an internship in industry. It is important to learn about a variety of areas and to see things from different viewpoints. Even those whose ultimate goal is to pursue an academic career can benefit from this experience. In practical terms, industry experience provides a competitive advantage and makes one’s resume stand out, since many Ph.D. students have only done academic research. It also provides invaluable networking opportunities, which I encourage all students to take advantage of as much as possible. You never know when an opportunity might come up. I have no doubt that my industry internship led to my current position, in addition to the many invaluable lessons that I learned.

Jung Park (jung.s.park@intel.com) received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of California, San Diego in 2010. He is currently a member of the Photonics Technology Lab at Intel Corporation, where he works to integrate silicon photonics devices for optical interconnects in computing applications.

 

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Using LinkedIn to Land a Job

15. March 2012

By Lauren Celano

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website and BioCareers.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

In today's competitive marketplace, being able to differentiate yourself is critical. LinkedIn is a useful tool for branding yourself, showcasing your background, building connections and job searching. It's hard to imagine how people functioned without it. Many people have asked for my advice on how to best use LinkedIn to search for jobs. Here are some tips for maximizing the value of this tool.

Build out your profile. When creating your profile, think about who will be reading this information. Your profile should explicitly state who you are, what experience you have, and what skills you master. Potential employers will almost certainly review your LinkedIn profile. The more professional you can make it, the more attractive you become as a candidate. This shows that you are serious about your career and your personal brand.

Your profile should include additional information, such as lab techniques you know, presentations you have given at large conferences, publications you’ve contributed to, etc. Many companies and recruiters use LinkedIn to search for individuals with specific skills. If you have these in your profile, you increase the chance of being "found" by an HR person when they search. If you do not have details listed, then your chance of being identified is almost zero.

If you are a student or postdoc, state when you think you will be done. Without this information, companies may be reluctant to contact you about jobs. Recruiting is extremely time-consuming, so the easier you can make it for companies to know what you want and when you will be available, the better.

To learn specifics about building and taking advantage of your LinkedIn account, use the LinkedIn learning center. Don't forget, your online presence is often the first thing that potential employers see, so don't lose the chance to make a positive first impression.

Have a professional photo. In general people are extremely visual, and they remember faces more than names. For example, if you meet someone at a networking event and send him or her a LinkedIn invitation afterwards, your profile picture will immediately help them to connect your name with your face.

Your image is part of your brand. Ideally you should have a professional take your photo. However, since most digital cameras work well enough for this purpose, that is also an acceptable way to go. Have a friend take your photo, stand against a blank wall, avoid objects of distraction, have a professional outfit on, and smile. This extra effort will go a long way.

Make sure that your name on LinkedIn is the same as the one on your resume. Potential employers will almost always look at an individual’s LinkedIn page as they are reviewing resumes. If they cannot find you, it creates a red flag. If the name on your resume is different than that on your LinkedIn account, make them the same so that you can be easily found.

Link to people you know. As you grow your network, only connect with trusted contacts. In this way, your network becomes personal and actually useful for you as you grow in your career. Aim for quality, not quantity. Adding a lot of people just to increase your numbers actually dilutes the value of your network.

Do not send a LinkedIn invitation to a hiring manager. Most people are very selective about their LinkedIn connections. If you ask to link to a hiring manager who does not know you, he or she may feel uncomfortable, and this could hurt your application chances.

Join groups. If you are looking to learn more about a certain area, join a LinkedIn group related to it. There are thousands of groups available. When you are new to the job search, using this feature is extremely valuable for getting a lay of the land. To find groups, search for them by keyword under group categories. Use the following link to learn more about groups in your LinkedIn profile. You may be surprised by how many groups are relevant to you. Also, you can become an active member or a group and share your expertise. This can build thought leadership.

When requesting a connection, mention where you met that person. People are busy and have a lot of things on their mind. The easier you can make it for people, the better. If you met someone at a international networking event and are following up with a LinkedIn request, you may want to write in the subject line: "International networking event follow up." In the body of the LinkedIn request, you might say something like: “Dear X, It was a pleasure meeting you at the international networking event on DATE. To follow up, I would like to link into you so that we can keep in touch.”

It is amazing how many times people don't do this. I wonder how many LinkedIn requests do not get answered because people cannot remember the context in which they met someone.

The connections you develop over time are a valuable part of your professional career, so respect your network, be responsive, and finally, keep it human.

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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Postdoc Perspectives: Looking Back on My Year in France

3. February 2012

by Elena Silaeva

I got the idea the first time I traveled abroad to attend an international scientific conference. Wouldn’t it be exciting to do a posdoc abroad?

It was an ongoing dream during my doctoral research, and I actively networked throughout my studies. However, when my thesis defense came around, no one was clamoring to welcome me into his or her lab. Like many of you, I faced the inevitability of having to write 100 emails to lab managers in the hopes of getting at least one positive answer. (I knew the sad statistics from the experience of my peers.)

Then I got lucky: One of my colleagues forwarded me an email announcing a postdoc position in Saint Etienne, France. I sent my CV immediately. Quite soon, I received a couple of emails back with relevant questions about my thesis and abilities. My future employer also asked my colleague about my work during a conference. In the end I received an offer, which I was very happy to accept. The following are my reflections on the experience as well as my advice to others who are looking to pursue a postdoc abroad.

Prepare for paperwork. For the two months before starting my contract in France, I had to get all the paperwork in order. The bureaucracy is very strong there. I was not shocked because it can be worse in Russia. However, for someone who is accustomed to a neat and quick process, such as in the United States or Germany, it can be daunting. If you are considering a foreign postdoc, make sure you understand which documents you will need and build in enough time to deliver the required information.

I was asked to provide some documents that don’t even exist in my country. For example, I had to get a medical certificate in Moscow … from a French doctor! I also had to track down my birth certificate, which I had not used since I was 16 years old. Fortunately, I found it at my parents’ home.

Learn the language. Another important thing to consider in any foreign position is the language barrier. My future supervisor advised me to learn some French before arriving in the country. I took a short intensive course that proved to be very helpful. In France, most people don’t speak English. I had to speak French to the administration of the University, in the bank, and in order to rent an apartment. In the lab, it was easier: Everybody knew English, although they preferred to speak French.

In general, it was easy to get to know people and become part of the lab. Everyone was very friendly. Every morning there was an all-lab coffee break, and my lab mates and I went to lunch together as well. Our most important decisions were made over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Test your limits. My postdoc brought with it a new level of responsibility. Since my research is related to numerical simulations, the way that I worked—in an office, on a computer—was not very different in the two countries. However, the subject of my research changed a lot. My thesis was devoted to nonlinear optics and laser pulse propagation, whereas my postdoc project was about material science and laser-matter interaction. The particular problem I was studying was new to the lab, with only one postdoc (me) responsible for its solution. Since my supervisor was busy coordinating many other projects and applying for new ones, I was largely on my own. I even had to install the necessary software on my computer. This was very different than my doctoral research, which was a continuation of earlier work and for which I received a large degree of guidance from my advisor.

Starting from almost zero was scary. I was expected to get results and have papers published by the end of the year. I worked hard and accomplished more than I thought I was capable of. I acquired new skills and knowledge. At the end of the project, I was offered the opportunity to continue working on the same subject in another French lab.

This year was very exciting and unforgettable. In addition to my professional achievements and growth, I took advantage of the wonderful French culture, great cuisine and beautiful mountains. And now I speak French.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Rouen, Materials Physics Group, France.

 

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Taking It as It Comes: My Unexpected Path to Career Satisfaction

11. January 2012

by Jemellie Houston

I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland working on a Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I had a plan: I would finish my Ph.D. and then do a postdoc before starting a career in research. At the time, I was working on the high-speed generation of entangled photons with the quantum cryptography laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I adhered to my path religiously and went the extra mile through my involvement in extracurricular activities. For example, I was an OSA student chapter president and IONS North America organizer. And then … life got in the way.

Forks in the road

I went through several life-altering circumstances, including losing my mother and getting engaged and married. I became aware that my career was now part of a bigger picture that included my life with my husband, who was also pursuing a Ph.D. in addition to doing his full-time job. I also found myself surrounded by postdocs and recent Ph.D. graduates who were unable to find permanent positions. Between the economy and the scarcity of full-time positions, I decided it would be more practical for me to obtain my master’s degree and gain some real-world experience rather than complete my Ph.D.

It was a very difficult decision for me. I struggled because I felt like I was digressing from THE path, like a black sheep that had lost its way. Until then, I had only known of one way in which a scientific career could progress.

A path beyond academia

Immediately after finishing my M.S., I found employment at Mettler-Toledo, Autochem Inc.—a division of Mettler-Toledo that makes precision instrumentation for spectroscopy and other optical measurement equipment. I applied for a software test engineer position.

During the interview process for the engineering position, my potential employers deliberated about whether or not I would be a better fit for a position on their research and development team, since I had a solid research background. In the end, I got the engineering position, and in hindsight I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to strengthen my skills in electrical and computer engineering.

I have now been with the company for more than three months. In anticipation of a product line launch in a couple of years, I am again being encouraged to join a research and development team. I am thinking about this and figuring out my next move. I like what I do now, but I am open to other opportunities as well.

One of the perks of my job is that my company will pay for my classes if I pursue another scholastic degree. I plan to take advantage of this opportunity as well in the next academic year.

Learning to adapt

The moral of my story is that opportunities arise unexpectedly in places that may be unfamiliar to us. We shouldn’t have a rigid mindset about how to get where we want; we also need to open our minds to other perfectly good opportunities. This not only opens doors for your career but also gives you a chance to learn more about yourself.  Although I am not a gambler by nature, I am glad I took a risk. If I hadn’t, I would not likely be as happy as I am right now. I like where I am and where I am headed.

Jemellie Houston (Jemellie.Houston@mt.com) is a software test engineer at Mettler-Toledo AutoChem Inc. in Columbia, Md., U.S.A.

 

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ONE Event, Three Perspectives on Optics Startups

24. October 2011

By Christina Folz

At last week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, I attended the first meeting of OSA’s Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), a new group intended to connect optics students and young professionals with mentors who are scientist-entrepreneurs.

This post shares advice that was given at the event on how to jump into the startup world. The speakers included Greg Quarles, president and chief operating officer of B.E. Meyers; Michelle Holoubek, director in the electronics group at the intellectual property law firm Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox; and Tom Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University, cofounder of Arcturus Bioscience Inc. and 2009 OSA President.

Like a startup, ONE is still in development. Its organizers, including Bright Futures bloggers Brooke Hester and Danny Rogers along with Armand Niederberger of Stanford, are seeking volunteers to grow the program. Please contact Brooke, Danny or Armand if you are interested in joining this new community.

Greg Quarles: How to Act Like an Entrepreneur

Have clarity. Know why you do what you do. Successful entrepreneurs have a purpose, cause or belief that exists above and beyond the products or services they sell.

Have discipline. You must understand not only what product or service you plan to offer but how you intend to do it. Business owners cannot simply demand that their team “make it so,” in the fashion of Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek. They must hold themselves and their teams accountable to a defined set of guiding principles or values.

Be consistent. Everything you do and say must prove what you believe. In this sense, YOU are the product—a critical part of your own brand. The product should reflect your core values, and you should adopt a winning attitude in all areas of developing your business. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, how can others?

Michelle Holoubeck: Why Intellectual Property Matters
Intellectual property (IP) includes trade secrets, patents, copyrights and trademarks. Every fledgling entrepreneur should learn the fundamentals of IP to protect their growing business because it enables you to:

Guard your ideas and establish a competitive edge. IP is the only way that small companies can contend with larger ones on an otherwise skewed playing field. For example, when Microsoft was shown to have used XML technology that was patented by the small company i4i in one of its product releases, the software giant was ordered to pay i4i to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Promote investments. Because funders want to protect their investments, they are unlikely to finance startups that have not developed IP safeguards.

Encourage disclosure of new ideas. Sharing exactly how a company’s products or processes work in a patent helps to drive further innovation in the marketplace, and it enables businesses and consumers to easily distinguish among different products and services.

Also keep in mind:
• Publically disclosing your invention—by describing it at a conference, for example—before filing a patent application may limit your ability to protect your invention.

• If you disclose some of your invention, you must disclose it all. You can’t keep the best components a secret.

• You don’t have to actually make an invention to patent it; you just have to describe how you would make it.

• Not everyone who works on a product is an inventor. Incorrectly attributing inventorship to someone who did not play a real role can damage your patent.

Tom Baer: Know your Market First
Contrary to popular belief, a product idea is not required to start a successful company. Here’s the process that worked for Tom:

Identify a market. A couple years ago, Tom worked with a team to develop the Stanford spinoff Auxogyn—without a specific product idea in mind. Instead, the team started by targeting the area of assisted reproduction, a market that is growing by about 20 percent per year, with about 1 in 6 couples facing infertility.

Look for people who can build your company. For Auxogyn, this included a diverse group of medical doctors, developmental biologists, engineers, imaging experts and others. Look for those with the skills you lack.

Study the market. Talk with customers and assess other businesses in your niche. How do they work? What will give your company a differentiable edge?

Find and develop your idea. As you do your homework, your idea will emerge. Once it does, create product models to show your customers and incorporate their feedback into the next version. For its product, Auxogyn ultimately decided on imaging platforms that monitor the developmental process of embryos in an incubator—allowing for the selection of the healthiest ones for in vitro fertilization.

Delay financing as long as possible. Once you have the right ideas and the right market, you can find investors. If you fail, it’s better to fail early—before you’ve invested significant time and funding into product development and pilot production.

Christina Folz (cfolz@osa.org) is OPN’s editor and content director.

 

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Ph.D. Perspectives: How to Go from Grad Student to Professor in 12 Months or Less

15. July 2011

Brooke Hester

The beginning of my story is probably familiar to many of you. In late 2009, I was a University of Maryland Chemical Physics graduate student working in the Optical Tweezers (OT) Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., U.S.A. A typical day would consist of realigning the laser (turn knob, read meter, repeat), spending hours collecting data (make slide, turn knob, hit key, view screen, repeat), and partaking in the required physical functions of eating and sleeping (repeat as needed). I was the only person working in the OT lab, so the days were long and lonely. Music was my only companion.

(Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have it so bad, but at the time the combination of prolonged redundancy and solitude had started to make me crazy.)

Eventually, the day came when I decided it was time to move on. While I could have used another six months to a year to complete my Ph.D. thesis project, my desire to start a new career adventure outweighed my desire to formally finish. I started to think about the possibilities and search for positions.

After I determined that teaching was my primary goal, I received some excellent advice from my advisor: He suggested that I apply for one-year university teaching positions. He knew that, without a post-doc on my CV, it would be tough to land a tenure-track position right out of grad school. However, if I could get a year or more of university-level teaching experience under my belt, I might stand a chance of securing at least a semi-permanent position later on. Learning that I was pregnant in early 2010 heightened my determination to extreme levels.

In May of 2010, I was offered and accepted a one-year teaching position at Appalachian State University’s department of physics and astronomy. After that, things began to move very quickly. I moved to Boone, N.C., and began a new job as a visiting assistant professor in August 2010, gave birth in September, wrote a Ph.D. thesis and defended it in November, and started a new research lab of my own in December.

With the help and support of my family and my new home department, I survived those months. I was able to establish the new optical tweezers lab at Appstate thanks to an equipment loan from NIST as well as a large deposit of optics equipment from the physics and astronomy department at Appstate. Currently, three undergraduates and two master’s students are constructing and carrying out experiments there.

I am now teaching full time, juggling too many projects, and barely getting the necessary items completed. Still, I love my work and life here and I hope I can give back enough, or at least match, what I have been fortunate enough to receive.

What did I learn from this transitional experience that may benefit others? A few things:

• You can and will finish your Ph.D., although it may require extreme determination (or is it stubbornness?). That same quality will allow you to teach yourself multitudes throughout your career. Applying for and securing a job can give you a clear motivator to finish. It provides a very scary and realistic due date.

• Don’t be afraid to teach for the first year out of your Ph.D. You can go from grad school to a professorship. You will learn as you go while getting the opportunity to live in a new and interesting place and strengthen your CV.

• It’s okay to graduate without completely finishing all your projects. Open-ended experiments will give you something to work on right away when you move to the next institution.

• A good support system is critical. I recommend a spouse who is also a chef and stay-at-home dad.

• Time management is key. This means you won’t get any sleep at all during the first semester of your teaching job—whether you have a newborn or not.

• Teaching and research in physics and astronomy is the best job in the world. The colleagues are all nice sane people (OK, maybe a little kooky, but in a good way) and the hours and location are somewhat flexible (you can work real late at home if you want to). In addition, at most universities, you have your summers off to pursue research, to teach for extra pay if you choose, and to take some time for you and your family.

And when you feel like your life really sucks, just remember—at least you’re not realigning a laser … or at least not for long.

Brooke Hester (hesterbc@appstate.edu) is a lecturer in the department of physics and astronomy at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., U.S.A.
 

 

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Launching Your Consulting Career

13. January 2011

by Jennifer Kruschwitz

In a previous post, Jennifer Kruschwitz helps optics professionals to determine if consulting is the right career path for them. Here she provides advice for how to start your business once you’ve decided to make the leap into the consulting world.

You’ve made the decision: You want to be a consultant. If the opportunity to do a little “pre-launch” planning is available, the first thing to do is pay off any accumulated debt. It is often said that consultants make large amounts of money. That might sometimes be true, but the money often comes in waves. There may be times you are so busy that the money seems to be rolling in, but these may be followed by periods when it’s a struggle to find work.

Start from a strong financial position. Be sure that you have a financial safety net in place for the lean times. When things are going well, you should always be prepared to contribute a significant percentage of your earnings to your safety net.

Get your paperwork in order. You’ll need brochures to describe your abilities, invoices, business cards and letterhead. Stick to a budget: flashy items are expensive, so keep everything simple.

Learn to be a legal eagle. You will need a good understanding of contracts, nondisclosure agreements, and so forth. If you can acquire legal counsel before launch, get acquainted with key aspects of intellectual property and ownership law. Most contracts are very specific in that the customer retains rights to all of the IP that comes out of the consulting agreement. Make sure that the confidentiality of any information provided to a customer will not stop you from being able to work for other clients.

Determine your rates. Establishing an hourly fee is not as straightforward as you might think. One way to determine a ballpark rate is to take the amount of money you would like to earn in a year and divide it by the number of hours you plan to work. Or you could take the hourly rate currently being paid by an employer and multiply that number by two or three. Make sure your rate includes business costs as well as salary. These costs can include health care, life insurance, retirement, business overhead, legal and accounting fees and self-employment taxes. Whichever way you calculate your “worth” as a consultant, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Research consulting rates for your field. Know what rate will allow you to maintain a competitive edge.

• Be ready to justify your rates. If you are an expert, your rates should reflect that expertise. It has been observed that consultants who charge too little for their services are not taken as seriously by clients.

• Be flexible and know your market. There may be times when, to win a job, you need to change your rates to meet the range specified in a given proposal.

Don’t forget the IRS. Keep your financial records well organized. Open a separate checking account for the business—it makes it easier to keep track of your earnings—and pay yourself from that account. Keep all receipts related to business activities (i.e., parking, tolls, travel, supplies) in a central location and, if you can, enter them in a database. If the business is run from the home, save utility bills, phone bills and so forth. There are specific requirements governing the deductibility of expenses incurred by home-based businesses, and the consultant needs to be aware of them.

It’s a good idea to have a tax advisor available to get things up and running. The Web site HRBlock.com has helpful tips for the self-employed. There will be self-employment taxes to consider in addition to income taxes. Estimated taxes on your consulting income must be paid quarterly to the federal and your state government. There are heavy penalties associated with not paying quarterly taxes on time and in the proper amount. Organized recordkeeping and timely tax payments will make tax time a relatively painless experience.

Consultants are a fundamental component of today’s business marketplace, but consulting is not for everyone. Once you decide to start a consulting business, there’s no doubt there will be challenges ahead. The ways in which those challenges are met and overcome determine the ultimate success of the consultant.

Jennifer D.T. Kruschwitz is an OSA member and senior optical coating design engineer at her own company, J.K. Consulting, Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

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