Helpful STEM Resources for Young Women

21. August 2014

On this blog and elsewhere, there has been considerable discussion of the dearth of women in STEM-related careers. A number of major tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and eBay, among others) recently released reports on the diversity of their workforces, and the results further reinforced the scope of this problem. The majority of employees at all of these companies are male: 70 percent at Twitter, 70 percent at Google, and 69 percent at Facebook. In spite of the advances being made by women and minorities, these fields continue to be dominated by white males.

Encouraging women and minorities to pursue STEM careers is a crucial step to increasing the diversity in the area, and there are a number of grassroots organizations currently working towards this goal. InformationWeek provided a helpful list of 12 such STEM resources. Take a look! 

You should also check out OSA’s Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA) program for information on our current initiatives to support women and minorities in optics and photonics. 

 

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A Woman's Place Is in the Lab

1. April 2014

Arlene Smith

As a female engineer, one becomes accustomed to being a minority: in the lecture theatre, in the graduate lab and in the workplace. We have come a long way from the days when women scientists were an anomaly, but the number of women choosing STEM courses and careers still lags behind our male counterparts. Increasing female representation in STEM, from the classroom to leadership roles, requires increased support not just within the research and education communities, but also from hiring managers in industry.

 A recent study carried out by U.S. business school professors at Columbia University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago found that a gender bias is still present at the hiring level for STEM roles. Hiring managers, both male and female, were asked to rate candidates based on their completion of simple mathematical tasks. When the managers were provided with no information other than appearance, men were twice as likely to be hired for a mathematical task then women. If a woman’s performance on the task was equal to that of a man, the man was still 1.5 times more likely to be hired for the role. The authors also concluded that, in an interview scenario, males tend to overestimate future performance, whereas women underestimate. Employers do not appreciate the extent of this bias, nor do they compensate for it at the point of hire.

In February 2014, the AIP Statistical Research Center released the results of a survey of U.S.-based Ph.D. graduates. The year 2012 saw an increase of 131 percent in the number of women completing Ph.Ds. in physics, compared with 2001. However, this accounts for just 20 percent of the total physics Ph.D. graduates in 2012. While this trend is encouraging, it’s clear that women are still underrepresented in the field and thus the graduate job market.

To increase female participation, there is an onus on women in the field to foster change, to take action and become involved. We need to communicate more, both with each other and with our male colleagues. This can mean outreach to middle and high schools, or staffing an industry booth at a career fair. You can show your support through mentoring programs and local and national societies and networks. Involvement is not limited to women— you don’t have to be female to recognize the advantages of a diverse workforce and support equality in the workplace. If women no longer fear that they will have to struggle against unfair prejudice in a STEM career, then more women will choose to study those subjects.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. Minorities and Women in OSA and SPIE Women in Optics provide seminars and networking opportunities for female scientists and engineers in optics. Connecting Women in Science, Technology and Entrepreneurship (WiSTEE Connect), established in 2013, provides an opportunity for connectivity and mentorship among women in science and engineering. I encourage you to educate yourself on these groups, as well as others on your campus or in your workplace, and support their efforts in building a more diverse and equal optics community.

What does it mean to be a female optical scientist today? For me, it means being part of an established, vibrant and growing community. What will it be like tomorrow? The trajectory will likely have its peaks and valleys, but we have every reason to be optimistic about the future—because it is ours to shape.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

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Viewpoint: Addressing Minorities in a Majority Culture

26. August 2013

Elsa Garmire

Did you ever travel to a different country? Did you try to speak their language? Or did you expect those around you to struggle with yours? Did you try to modify your behavior to fit in? Or did you stick to your role as tourist?

If you are male, have you ever gone to a place that was predominantly female—perhaps a ladies’ shop to purchase a gift for a loved one? Or taken your young children to a park filled with female nannies? Did you feel weird? Were you glad to get out of there?

Now imagine being a woman or minority in a field mostly populated by Caucasian men, such as optics. You can’t help but feel different. This feeling permeates your life, whether you realize it or not.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed the status of women faculty in the sciences and published a report, titled “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” showing that most bias against minorities in the academic sciences is unconscious but nonetheless impedes their progress. I recommend it as a good place to understand what I’m talking about.

The ultimate barrier, in industry as well as academia, is referred to as the glass ceiling. Many studies have shown that minorities will be less likely to be promoted than their majority counterparts, even when they have equally excellent qualifications. This glass ceiling describes the idea that, while minorities can compete for top jobs, they are at a disadvantage in obtaining them. The very idea of the glass ceiling can cause behavior changes. One person might compensate by becoming excessively assertive or competitive (thereby called aggressive); another might give up the dream, thereby becoming underpaid (women are consistently paid less than men).

The field of optics includes many individuals who are physically different from the “rest of us,” presenting a challenge to the community. Yes, you can argue that optics should not depend on culture as defined by gender, race, disability, etc. But we each bring our own preconceptions to our work, and ignoring our differences doesn’t make them go away.

We all accept that optics already has a wide variety of cultures as defined by work roles. Scientists and engineers approach optics differently. Small businesses differ from large ones. Forms of decision-making help define the culture of an institution: Is it top-down or bottom-up? Regarding both work cultures and those shaped by gender and ethnicity, my motto is: Vive la difference! Our differences can bring a richness to the field of optics if we allow them.

How can we break down barriers while still respecting our differences? Here’s a place to start:

Accept cultural differences and acknowledge that they can cause unintended biases and barriers. If you don’t believe this, read up in the field and you’ll be convinced.

Make lists of minorities that you know (include yourself if appropriate) and present them to those in power, so they’ll remember them when openings occur, whether in careers, or in volunteer positions.

If you have a job opening, contact women and minorities in your network and ask them to apply. My role model for this is former OSA Executive Director Jarus Quinn, who consciously made opportunities for every qualified woman within OSA to participate. We need to make sure his pre-action (action before it's requested) continues within OSA.

Understanding the differences between minority and majority cultures will benefit everyone. I look forward to the day when all OSA members are pre-active in acknowledging bias and reducing barriers. What a rich and comfortable society we will become!

Elsa Garmire (garmire@dartmouth.edu) is the Sydney E. Junkins Professor, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., U.S.A., and a former OSA president.

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Networking My Way to a New Job

6. June 2013

Miaochan Zhi

Every job search is different, but there are certain tactics that you can apply to most situations. I have often been told about the importance of networking, and that’s exactly how I found my new job at a national institute: I practiced my elevator talk and seized every opportunity to speak to experienced researchers in my field.

During a symposium I attended, a speaker mentioned an available position in a national institute where I have always wanted to work. After his talk, I approached him and asked him about the opening. It turned out that this position had opened only a few days before, so I was able to get in the door early. Fortunately for me, we had already become acquainted during other conferences and he knew my work pretty well. This worked to my advantage, and I got the job two weeks later without going through the normal interview process.

Through personal contacts, I was also able to learn about unadvertised positions. For example, I started chatting informally with a professor about his research during a poster session at a conference.  He mentioned that he had a postdoc position opening up, but that he was looking to find potential applicants from friends and colleagues rather than by advertising externally. By the end of our conversation, he had invited me to apply. Had I not approached him to talk about something else entirely, I never would have known that the opportunity even existed! Building personal relationships with colleagues is extremely valuable.

Even in instances when I didn’t land a job as a direct result of networking, I gained some very valuable advice. I talked to newly hired assistant professors to get a sense of what their lives and work were like. I asked them what they wished they had done differently in their own careers, and whether they have been able to benefit from their experience. Based on this input, I have discovered that running a lab is actually a lot like managing a startup company. As a result, I have started to pay attention to lab management resources and attended workshops to learn about how to handle conflicts among my team.

My colleagues also helped me to discover other helpful resources for job searching. I thought I knew many of the online job sites, such as workinoptics.com, monster.com, etc. However, a friend who recently moved to a faculty position used sites that I hadn’t even heard of:  academickeys.com and indeed.com.

In addition to making the most of your network, you must also plan for your future and be prepared for the opportunities that arise. I knew that I was ultimately interested in biomedical imaging, so I made an effort to branch out into that area of research over the past few years. I always have a few recommendation letters ready to go, along with an up-to-date CV that I have revised many times. Because I had thought ahead, I was able to submit an application within a week of finding the right job opening. 

Miaochan Zhi (mczhi@tamu.edu) is a research physicist at NIST. She received her Ph.D. in ultrafast optics from Texas A&M University.

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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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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.

Academic careers, Career, Graduate school, International careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives, Women in Science , , , , , ,

And So It Begins: Scientific Stereotypes

12. December 2012

David McGloin

This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.

Recently, my daughter was asked to do a writing and comprehension exercise related to her science class. On the surface, it was a simple assignment: Look at an image and write descriptive words and phrases about it, and then put these into context in a few sentences. The exercise was linked to her current project work on magnets and their properties. (It was rather straightforward, as she is only in Primary 3.) But the picture that the teacher had chosen was what caught my eye. It was of a “scientist” in the old man, Einstein mold with a set of test tubes.

Although I don’t have a problem with the assignment itself, I do take issue with the way that this particular image reinforces the tired old cliché of the stereotypical scientist. This is the type of thing that seeps into kids’ minds and influences the way that they conceptualize the sciences. While it may not put them off entirely, it could lead them to perceive science as being uncool or only for a limited group of people. At a young age, I think many kids love science. They like doing experiments and discovering things. But after years of being bombarded with images like these, that can begin to change. I think my daughters are capable of anything, including becoming much better scientists than I am. However, in spite of their potential, years of reinforcement of the idea of scientists as disheveled old men could ultimately take its toll.

This is a deeply entrenched image in society, and it is not a simple problem to fix. The misconception should be addressed on multiple levels, and so science communication needs to extend much further than just the pupils. The solution begins with teachers. The instructors at a primary school may not know better. They too have grown up with these stereotypes, and they may be, through no fault of their own, unaware that this is an issue.  That is why we in the science community need to raise awareness among educators so that our teachers can help take on the lack of female students in the sciences. 

I have watched with interest the development of projects like Sciencegrrl and Geek Girl Scotland. For quite a while, I have sympathized with their cause and seen the need for such initiatives. However, before I had my own daughters, it didn’t hit quite so close to home. Now the issue seems much more personal. I have ordered a Sciencegrrl calendar to pass on to my local school. In addition, as the Head of Physics at Dundee University, I will try to look at ways to improve our attractiveness to female applicants. As a community, we need to explore ways in which we might help out more in the community to try and counter such stereotypes. As a start, I have ordered a Science Grrl calendar to donate to my kids’ school. You should get one too.

David McGloin (d.mcgloin@dundee.ac.uk) is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland. 

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Should You Follow the Science Fashion of the Day?

5. October 2012

Arti Agrawal

I want that gorgeous Chanel bag. I do!

Is there any logic behind it? While I’m not sure what’s behind my urge, I suspect that Chanel has it down to a science (and art)!

Surely the fashions sold to us are not merely the unfettered creative output of talented designers? I believe there is plenty of science behind how trends change and how new products are introduced to the market. As this blog post from IonPsych explains, designers may even draw on optical illusions to create clothes that help elongate the body or emphasize flattering aspects of a person’s figure.

So if fashion follows science, does science follow fashion?

After all, we’ve all seen that certain “hot topics” in science often crop up that attract the attention of policy-makers, grant-giving bodies, journal editors and reviewers. And the work done in these areas tends to get more funding, publications and attention than that in less “fashionable” ones.

The advantages of channelling resources into trendy areas is that it allows us to rapidly develop technology in strategically important areas and to realize a quick potential return to taxpayers, investors, industry and the public. With limited funding resources, it is essential to have a method of prioritizing.

On the other hand, some areas can get over-funded at the expense of other deserving options. Trendy science can cause us to neglect promising potential developments and restrict creativity and diversity in thought.

Science is frustratingly enigmatic: We can't always predict which seemingly obscure development or outlandish piece of research will lead to a fantastic new technology or product that changes our lives. Nor can we be sure that the hot area that many work on will deliver the goods on schedule.

This fickle quality is what makes science so exciting to work in. You can’t really know what the work of today will create for tomorrow.

Take photonics for example. It has many applications and is often thought of as an enabling technology. In my view, the current trend is largely to focus on experimental work. Theoretical ideas are sometimes regarded with a jaundiced eye in the peer review process: If you can't or haven’t fabricated a prototype or demonstrated your predictions, reviewers and editors cannot be easily convinced about the potential of the idea.

But look at how the laser came to be. The principle behind this transformative technology was published years before the first prototype was demonstrated. Today lasers are everywhere: in our printers, DVD reader/writers, medical equipment, industrial equipment. It is nice to see that Charles Townes, whose early work led to the laser, was recently recognized for taking risks when he received a “Golden Goose award,” which was intended to highlight how federally funded research that once seemed pointless can ultimately transform society.

Would this wonderful idea have survived the peer review of today?

Another example is that of left-handed or negative index materials. The concept of a negative refractive index was predicted by Veselago in the 1960s when no experimental verification of the concept was possible: Fabrication was not feasible with the technology of the day, and no known examples existed in the natural world.

Yet the work was published. Moreover, since the 1990s, it has led to a huge research effort globally. By now, everyone has heard of metamaterials! Whether these exotic materials will give us the breakthroughs that researchers expect remains to be seen.

And so I feel we need to encourage a more balanced perspective—and resource allocation—and not lean too heavily in any one direction, lest we ignore incredible ideas that can transform science.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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Reflections on an Optics Education

20. July 2012

Danuta Bukowska

My path to a career in optics has been an adventure. Although I have only worked in the field for four years, I have learned a lot in that time and come to love this branch of physics. Before I started my Ph.D. studies, my background in optics was fairly limited. Fortunately, my advisor didn’t view that as a problem. He was looking for students who were passionate, hard-working, curious and ready to take on challenges. As surprising as it may seem, you don’t have to be a specialist in the field when you begin your Ph.D.

In a team environment, people can do the work that best suits their tastes and strengths. That is one of the reasons why joining the Optical Biomedical Imaging Group at Nicolaus Copernicus University was such a wonderful choice for me. My colleagues are not only talented and helpful; they have also become good friends. There is always someone available to discuss difficulties in the lab or problems with theoretical work.

No one is expected to do everything. For example, I’ve never had much patience for writing long mathematical formulas or doing computer simulations, so someone else takes on that role in the lab. With this division of labor, work gets done faster and more effectively. The team shares work, knowledge, problems and our different perceptions of optics.

But getting your Ph.D in optics is about more than just working in a lab. In the past four years, I have attended eight conferences, mostly in the United States. I have written grant applications and publications and collaborated with scientists from institutions in Poland and abroad. I am also involved with the Nicolaus Copernicus University SPIE Student Chapter, which inspired me to establish an OSA Student Chapter two years ago. 

I have gotten a lot of personal satisfaction from my student chapter activities. Working with children as part of our outreach activities has been a special joy; I enjoy their curiosity and sense of wonder. The chapter has also given me the opportunity to meet fantastic people from all around the world. Because we live in an international optics community, networking can lead you to find collaborators from many other places. For example, I helped to organize the international OPTO Meeting for Young Researchers in Torun in cooperation with people from Romania, Russia and Ukraine.

After four years, I have a solid knowledge of optics. I’m experienced in working in the lab, presenting my research in front of a global audience, educating children in science, organizing international optics meetings, and writing grant applications. My experiences in the field have prepared me to face new challenges and live up to the demands and expectations of the world after graduate school. I look forward to my next big adventure!

Danuta Bukowska (danbu@fizyka.umk.pl) is a Ph.D. student at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland. She belongs to Optical Biomedical Imaging Group guided by Maciej Wojtkowski. Her research interests include optical coherence tomography and laser spectroscopy applied to biomedical imaging. 

 

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Reflecting on Career/Life Balance

11. June 2012

Jannick Rolland

For many of us, work provides a way to contribute to society, and it is often a significant component of our lives. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of a career in today’s highly competitive landscape. Working in academia, for example, requires one to have the skills of running a small business. Besides teaching and serving our universities and professional societies, we must seek funding and support our graduate students.

At the same time, many of us are also charged with the demands of raising a family or caring for elderly loved ones. As our lifestyles become more complex, all of us—whether men or women—must develop strategies to balance our career with our personal lives. As a single parent of two for part of my journey, I have had to forge my own path.

For me, the most challenging aspect of being a working parent is the travel required to be successful on the job. These days, the option to seek help from a family member is not always there. I chose early on to explore a different model for pursuing my career in science and raising happy and successful children. I wanted my children to develop as happy, creative, independent and successful human beings regardless of their less-than-optimal circumstances at that point in time. 

Sacrificing my professional work to cook dinner and tuck them into bed every night was not realistic, and it was not the best way for me to meet my goals for them or me. I gave up on being “the perfect parent” and instead developed alternative ways of supporting my children—by raising them in an environment in which they could engage with a large pool of adults whom I trusted.

I believe that a family is happiest when each member of it is engaged in the activities that fulfill them the most. Both parents and children are most likely to thrive in an environment that is not only nurturing but stimulating.    

Giving children the chance to interact with people from diverse cultures is of tremendous value. As a scientist, I work with young professionals who are often single or who have limited social lives, particularly if they are working in a country far from their original home. These young professionals are typically more than happy to engage outside the work environment.

My children built relationships with many of my colleagues and students, who became part of our family. I think that is why my older son chose to visit a mosque with a Muslim graduate student at age 14 and why he decided to spend the summer in Seoul, South Korea, at 19 after having developed a strong friendship with one of my Korean students.

Another way I balanced my life and career was by making sure that I deeply connected with family in spite of our time-challenged lives away from my native home of France. In our case, this meant spending some summers abroad, with the goal of helping the children become bilingual. I thought that, by learning French, they could develop their family ties, better understand diversity, and learn to adapt to change. In addition to summers abroad, I took a full-year sabbatical in France when they turned 9 and 11. I conducted science while also connecting with family. 

While it was surely challenging for the children to spend a year away from home, it turned out to be a wonderful experience for them, and they are both thanking me for it today. They developed enduring friendships, and they are both fluent in French. 

Balance isn’t about counting the hours spent at home vs. work; it is about the value we create when we are faced with challenges. What will leave a positive long-term imprint on our children’s minds and their attitudes towards life? 

These days, balance comes a bit easier. In 2009, I remarried my dream partner, and I try to live every day to the fullest. Engineering and science are my passions, but I also like sharing dinners and conversing with friends from all walks of life. And I dearly love laughing with my children. This is my new balance.  

Jannick Rolland (rolland.jannick@gmail.com) is the Brian J. Thompson professor of optical engineering at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

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