Distinguished Ursula Keller

Minorities and Women in OSA

Meet this female fellow

Ursula Keller

Institut f. Quantenelektronik, Switzerland
OSA Member since: 1986
OSA Fellow since: 2003

Professional/personal highlights:

Ursula Keller joined ETH Zurich in Switzerland as an associate professor in 1993 and has been a full professor of physics there since 1997. She received the Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University USA in 1989 and the Physics diploma from ETH in 1984. During her first year at Stanford, she held a Fulbright Fellowship, and for the following year she was an IBM Predoctoral Fellow. She was a Member of Technical Staff (MTS) at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey from 1989 to 1993, where she conducted research on photonic switching, ultrafast laser systems, and semiconductor spectroscopy. Her research interests involve exploring and pushing the frontiers in ultrafast science and technology: ultrafast solid-state and semiconductor lasers, ultrashort pulse generation in the one to two optical cycle regime, frequency comb generation and stabilization, reliable and functional instrumentation for extreme ultraviolet (EUV) to X-ray generation, attosecond experiments using high harmonic generation, and attosecond science.

She has published more than 290 peer-reviewed journal papers and 11 book chapters and holds or has applied for 17 patents. She was a "Visiting Miller Professor" at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2006 and a visiting professor at the Lund Institute of Technologies, Sweden, in 2001. She received the OSA Fraunhofer/Burley Prize in 2008, the Philip Morris Research Award in 2005, the first-place award of the Berthold Leibinger Innovation Prize in 2004, and the Carl Zeiss Research Award in 1998. She was the "2006 �ngstr�m Lecturer" supported by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the LEOS Distinguished Lecturer for modelocked solid-state lasers in 2000. That same year the Thomson Citation Index highlighted her as the third-place top-cited researcher during a decade (1991-1999) in the field of optoelectronics. She is an OSA Fellow, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and an elected foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the German Academy Leopoldina.

She has been a board member and co-founder for Time-Bandwidth Products since 1995 and for GigaTera from 2000 to 2003, a venture capital funded telecom company during the "bubble phase" which was acquired by Time-Bandwidth in 2003.

In addition to excelling in her professional work, she is also happily married (to a full-time working husband) and mother of two boys now 13 and 11 years old (born Jan. 1997 and Nov. 1998).

What is your advice for balancing one�s professional and personal life?

There are different phases in life which means that we do not need to pack everything into the first 30 years of our life. I had my children rather late (i.e. 38 and 40 years old) which gave me the chance to first build up my professional life. I strongly believe that we need to have dreams and try to realize them. Do what gets you excited and marry a partner that supports this as well.

Do you have suggestions for how female scientists support each other�s career and development?

There is limited time. Focus your time on your "core" job responsibilities (those that get you promoted and get you moving ahead) and your family.

If you are considering an academic career then watch out for those pitfalls:

    • Committee work: reduce committee work!
    • Compromise in a dual career situation: look for creative solutions
    • Lack of PR work: go out there and sell your results and fight for your recognition (good work alone is not sufficient - unfortunately)
    • Being a woman: It's generally harder for women to get recognition, credit and rewards at more senior level (see MIT report)
    • Working too hard: you can't please everybody - set priorities and make time for networking and for non-work-related activities (prevent burn-out)


Manage your resume and get recognition when you deserve it: Why should you care?

    • Only a small number of colleagues can really judge your work. Awards are an easy/fast way to communicate your impact/success to a broader audience
    • Important for resources (funding, university office and lab space)
    • Need to get certain rewards by a certain time (compare to other successful resumes)
    • Build-up a support network for awards and invited talks. It is generally harder for women but even more important!
    • Pitfall "Cinderella story" (i.e. the woman only needs to wait until all her deams become true!)


How do you balance work and being a mom?

Basic assumption:

    • Full-time job to successfully compete on an international level
    • Rely on spouse support: Spouse needs to fully support this approach on equal grounds after mother returns to work full-time.
    • Kids benefit from a good external day care
    • Whatever you do - do not feel guilty. Kids will accept your choices as long as good care is provided. A mother needs to expect to her kids with the father and day care provider.


My organizational approach:

    • Full time job
    • Back to full time job: 10 weeks after birth but longer period without teaching
    • Pre-school: Kids in day care: 5 days a week, 8 am/9am to 6 pm (9 to 10 hours a day) �a great experience for my kids � they enjoyed it!
    • School age: Live-in nanny
    • Father-mother team: Father in the morning - mother in the evening
    • Other private solutions for crisis control: grandmother, baby-sitter, friends, neighbours


What do you wish would change on an organizational level to provide stronger support for balancing work and motherhood?

A new maternity program for professors and senior scientists

    • A long maternity leave is not in the interest of a scientific career
    • Back to the job as soon as possible, but with reduced commitments over a longer period (e.g. 1 to 2 years)


Stronger focus on research efforts

    • Reduce other requirements in teaching and committees
    • Extra financial support without administrative efforts (e.g. continue research grants when they are finishing within 1 year of birth - no questions asked)
    • Extra personal support: Reduce other group members from other requirements to provide more support to new mother
    • Optimize support with personalized plans (e.g. with department head and equal opportunity delegate of university) - at this point we still need to collect information
    • Get extra support with specially assigned mentor (Let�s prevent additional war zones and get essential information fast)


Need to have university day care infrastructures to support "top level" academic careers

    • University day care needs to address special needs for academic careers with top priority


We need to accept the differences

    • Female professors and senior scientists who want to have a family normally go through several pregnancies
    • Two kids, two years apart results in a "baby phase" of 4 to 5 years
    • What are five years in comparison to a long career of 20 to 40 years?


Let us not push the "super woman" approach

    • There are limits: we tend to lose excellent female scientists after a while
    • Not very effective role models for other young women
    • Family rearing is a real contribution to society and universities ("early teaching")
    • We can make a huge difference when we really help.


Give the female scientists and mothers the extra infrastructure support so that they can do their job and be successful

    • Basic protection yes, but we mainly need empowerment
    • Family rearing is not only a private matter
    • Many policy changes to make workplace more "family and woman-friendly" maybe worthwhile - but are largely "cosmetic changes" - and not addressing the core issues


Link for more information:

Head of Research | Prof. Ursula Keller | Institut f. Quantenelektronik

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