In this series we invite people at different career stages to share their experience in Photonics and lessons learned in professional development. Today we interview Regina Magalhães Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Southern California, an experienced scientist in highly-sensitive fiber optics measurements.
Regina, let’s start from your education. Why did you choose physics and astronomy and how did it lead you to photonics?
I decided to study physics when I finished college and went to the university. It always felt very natural to me. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science since I was very young, but the reason that led me to choose physics in particular is that, from all areas of science, this is the one that could get me more excited, and invested in thinking. The amazing thing about physics is that the answer you get after a scientific experiment or thought is often much more intriguing than the original question, which gets you addicted to thinking more and more, and in trying to better understand the world around you.
So, while I was studying physics and engineering in Portugal, I got to do an experiment in one class which involved optical fiber sensing, and I remember liking the field straight away. The professor with whom I had this experiment eventually became my master thesis advisor, since I was very interested in the experiments he was developing in his lab, together with his team. So from this point on, I never stopped working in photonics and in being fascinated with the field.
Your Linkedin profile says that you also graduated from the Academy of Music at about the same time when you were studying at high school. Did one not interfere with the other? Did music have any impact on your career choice?
I went to the Music Academia one year before I went to high school, and sometimes people have the option of replacing some high school disciplines with the music ones. I wasn’t able to do that since I was from a different city, so I had to combine a full-time schedule in high school, and all the other classes in the music school. It was difficult at times, but generally manageable.
I think both fields end up having some similarities, in a sense that they both require lots of discipline and focus, daily practice and study. A scientist never stops studying, the same as a musician never stops practicing. So, attending both schools at the same time enabled me to better organize my time and have better discipline.
Which was your main field in music school?
Saxophone, that was my main instrument.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in photonics?
I wanted to develop increasingly more complex optical systems to get to the bottom of the physics behind this technology. At the same time, I also aspired to be at the forefront of the research in this field, which means solving the challenges that are arising in the photonics community while they are happening, in real time, and understand the topic in a way that otherwise would be nearly impossible.
I particularly enjoy the field of fiber sensing, mostly because I find it to be an extremely elegant solution. We are surrounded by information everywhere without even realizing it, and some of this information would likely be beyond our reach if this field did not exist. Just by using light in a clever way and doing interferometry inside the fiber, we can extract all this information from the world around us, analyze it and study it thoroughly. This allows us to understand many things in a much more meaningful way. This information is being used to improve people’s lives and develop many fields, such as civil engineering, defense, seismology, and many others. And because this elegant approach leads to so many advances in our society, I think it’s really wonderful to observe and be a part of it.
What was the topic of your dissertation? Can you explain the essence of it in a popular way?
My work was part of a huge European project, an Innovative Training Project funded by the European Commission, which gathered almost 30 industries, research centers, and top universities across the world to focus on the development of distributed fiber sensors (DFOS) to be used as the nervous system of the Earth. This means to use optical fibers to retrieve different physical quantities from the environment. In this context, in my dissertation I worked with chirped-pulse phase-sensitive OTDR, which is an advanced reflectometry technique that enables us to interrogate a fiber and obtain information about the outside world in real time.
To put it simply, when we send light into a fiber, little imperfections in the fiber glass reflect light back towards the source. That is called Rayleigh scattering. This results in an interference pattern that we can analyze to retrieve any perturbation happening in the vicinity of the fiber, such as temperature, or strain. The main advantage of using distributed sensing techniques is that instead of having a set of punctual sensors spread along the fiber, the entire length of the fiber can be used as a sensing element, which can allow us to retrieve tens of thousands of measuring points from a single fiber. This is very useful for long-distance applications, such as monitoring earthquakes over tens of km, monitoring tunnels, the safety of large structures, and so on.
So during my PhD I worked in improving this technique, namely in improving the long-term stability of the method considering the new fields that are emerging for DFOS, even as we speak, and also designed new distributed fiber sensors that didn’t exist before, that enable us to sense other physical phenomena such as electric fields, optical radiation, teleseisms and microseisms, or the generation of surface gravity waves.
How many people are there working in this field?
The community of optical fiber sensing specialists is quite small. I remember that at my first conference I was only able to recognize a few people from the field, and at my second international conference I already knew most of the research groups, and knew exactly what they were working on. So I would say that there are a few hundred people working in this field, maybe even a few thousand.
After completing your dissertation, you got a postdoc position in University of Southern California. How did you find this place?
Well, in first place, I wasn’t particularly restraining my options to a specific location or research field. I was purely focused on finding something that I found very ambitious and exciting to work on, while also being somewhat aligned with my set of skills and interests. In my personal opinion, when you’re looking for a postdoctoral position in academia, it is also the time when you are expected to take a risk, to some extent. And my reasoning is that, at this stage, you are expected to prove your worth as an independent researcher, and the value of your vision as an individual scientist.
So overall, I was looking for an interesting project with the ultimate goal of broadening my expertise inside the photonics field, because I firmly believe that this is the path that will lead me into becoming a more experienced and valuable photonics engineer. I believe this already brought me the ability of having more freedom and insight for my future career choices, which are some of the aspects that I value the most, professionally.
I came across an interesting project on novel optical coherence tomography techniques, which uses similar interferometry principles as the ones I employed before in DFOS, with the twist that, in this case, the human body is the subject of study. From the humanitarian point of view this is very rewarding, since my work can significantly advance a particular field of medicine, and allow the scientific community to better understand some aspects of neuronal activity, and other common phenomena such as hearing loss, which ultimately can improve people’s lives.
Were you looking for a position in any particular country or university?
I have considered a few positions in different countries all over the world, both in industry or academia, and ended up going with the most rewarding and challenging one, in my judgement.
So, what's the easiest way to get a job in photonics?
There are several websites where you can look for jobs in academia, such as Euraxess, or ResearchGate. However I still find that it can be hard to find a job that specifically fits the profile of a photonics scientist, since the offers usually specify optics, in general terms. Optics is such a general and broad field, that you must read all the offers to eventually figure out the ones you’re interested in. Therefore, I think it can be challenging to immediately find — at least in an official way — the exact job you are looking for in our field.
On the other hand, networking is probably still the best way to be informed about suitable and interesting positions. Once again, the community is not that extensive, so researchers generally know each other, and their individual interests and expertise. So I would say that the network is still the strongest way to be informed about jobs.
What was the most interesting project you took part in?
All the places where I used to work were really amazing, both for my career and for my personal experience. Starting from the place where I began my career — the University of Porto, that allowed me to take my first steps into scientific research — and ending up with my current research group, at the University of Southern California.
However, if we are talking about the place that gave me the most significant results for my career so far it has to be the University of Alcalá, since I did my doctoral thesis there. It was the result of four years of research, with a lot of time and energy invested, that resulted in a work that I am extremely proud of. Some of my scientific experiments were done over very short stays in other notable European labs, meaning that the work was very intense at times, but highly rewarding.
In addition to my research work in Alcalá, I also conducted seminars, workshops and participated in a few scientific competitions. Sometimes I was also involved in other activities, such as conducting photonics experiments for students.
So, as a postdoctoral researcher, the work is more independent.
Yes, I am the only one responsible for the success of my own projects. Of course there’s always some kind of guidance, and a general exchange of ideas with the Principal Investigator of my group. Nevertheless, it is a much more individually-focused work.
Did you ever take part in some commercialization process connected with photonics?
I was never directly involved in such projects. When I went to my lab in Spain, the chirped-pulse phase-sensitive OTDR technique I told you about had just been developed, and was already in the process of being licensed to two companies, one in Spain, and one in Switzerland. Nevertheless, currently I am developing new types of OCT technology that have the door open for commercialization with some of our partners.
Do you consider changing your scientific field to an industrial one?
Actually I’m open to every remarkable opportunity that might come in my way, either in academia or industry, provided that I am fascinated by it. I think the industry also has a lot of development in cutting-edge technologies that can directly improve people’s lives, and society as a whole. However, generally the work in academia is more interesting and outstanding.
Describe the perspectives you see for photonics in general.
If we look to the world around us, we can identify several major areas that are shaping the technological revolution that is currently taking place. These technological fields can generally be traced down to computing, energy, telecommunications, and medicine. The development in these fields pushes the research of almost all other fields.
In this regard, quantum computing is one of the areas that will be widely explored in the near future, as I see it. Also, in the field of energy distribution, fiber optic sensing is facing a lot of research to try to improve network efficiency, and ultimately develop next-generation smart grids. While optical fibers are mostly associated with telecommunications and the Internet, the fiber optic network is huge and widespread around the world, and it is currently being retooled for a variety of purposes, creating new fields of study, such as photonic seismology.
If we talk about the industry, some of the fastest growing photonics areas are based on developing sensors (for smartphones, autonomous vehicles), lasers, advanced spectroscopy techniques, and optical coherence tomography (both for industry and medicine research). This is all part of the future of the world, where photonics will develop powerfully. Photonics is increasingly becoming one of the most gigantic fields of the century, with trillions involved, and really a very in-demand topic right now. So I really encourage professionals and brilliant minds to get involved in it.
What exactly do you like in your job?
Any job based on scientific research forces you to have a critical spirit, to be pragmatic, and overall sensitive to the world around you. In this sense, it is way more than a job; it’s a lifestyle. It gives me the ability of reading nature and interpret it as it is. In some way, it can be understood as being able of reading a completely different language, the language of the world we live in. Even if you don’t personally do research in other fields, such as analytical chemistry, molecular biology, or evolutionary genetics, if you know the language of science, you will have the tools to read and interpret almost any scientific paper, at least in general terms. In my judgement, this is a major advantage in all aspects of life!
In addition, because of my work, I often have to travel and to go to various conferences where I meet very bright and kind people. I think science is a field that usually attracts very humble and intelligent people who are always willing to share and discuss new ideas. This effect results in a community that tends to be composed of people that are extremely sensitive to the world around them. I read somewhere this phrase, “I believe in a universe that doesn’t care, and in some people who do.” I agree, and from the way I see it, I really value to be surrounded by people who care about a better future, and devote their lives to it. If I wasn’t a part of it and couldn’t see it directly, I think I would have a much more pessimistic approach to life.
In a broader perspective, I don’t think that everyone should be pursuing a career in science. I deeply respect different career choices, and I am very happy they exist, and that we have all these different paths available for very different types of people. However, I can’t help but feel extremely grateful that I live in a society that is structured in a way that allows me to choose it in my life.