Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Alia Sabur

By Jennifer Kruschwitz

Alia Sabur

Professor in the Department of Advanced Technology Fusion at Konkuk University in Seoul, South Korea

Meeting brilliant people striving to make long‐lasting contributions to the field of optics as well as the science‐education community, has been a regular occurrence since my affiliation with the Optical Society of America (OSA). So when OSA asked me to interview and profile a few of the Society's female members for these newsletters, I jumped at the chance.

This month I had the opportunity to get to know the world's youngest university professor, and Guinness World Record holder, Alia Sabur. Take a moment to read about her remarkable accomplishments and plans for the future!

Kruschwitz: Congratulations on your recent move to Seoul, South Korea as a Professor at Konkuk University! What's a day like in the life of the Guinness World Records youngest university professor?

Sabur: My day consists of lecturing, participating in faculty meetings, coordinating with my students and colleagues and setting up my lab. I also do outreach as a young American woman as much as I can. That's very important to me. I want to share my love of learning to all who want to hear it. It's my cause and my passion.

Kruschwitz: It's not your first time in front of a class, however, as until recently you were teaching at Southern University in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; a predominately African American university that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. What motivated you to take on a position there?

Sabur: When I found out SUNO was the only college in New Orleans still in FEMA trailers and learned they were having difficulty recruiting professors, I felt that I could help out by teaching. Some people do Habitat for Humanity and help build houses – this was my way of making a difference, so I accepted a position for one semester and taught four different courses out of trailers. I found it very rewarding and I'm glad I had the opportunity.

Kruschwitz: It is evident in all your endeavors that you are dedicated to promoting STEM education and giving back to those in need. In addition you try to be a role model for girls by breaking stereotypes given to the scientific community. What do you think are the most successful ways to not only break down those stereotypes but to also inspire girls to pursue degrees in science and mathematics?

Sabur: It's a matter of taking one step at a time. When girls see others succeeding it's a powerful message that they can do it too. I do as much public speaking as I can and I intend to write books. I think that what I'm doing will have more of an impact if I can reach as many people as possible and that's my goal. I believe we also need to make a conscious effort to be kind to each other.

Kruschwitz: You began a B.S. in Applied Mathematics at Stony Brook University after the 4th grade and followed it with Ph.D. studies in Materials Science and Engineering at Drexel University; do you remember when and/or how your passion for science began.

Sabur: As long as I can remember I always wanted to know how things work. When I was little my dad and I used to go for walks and pick up objects and I wanted him to explain them to me. We'd go to the library and look it up. I've just always loved learning and my parents gave me the gift of learning how to learn.

Kruschwitz: You mention on your Web site that you are interested in a venue to develop non‐invasive optical blood glucose meters for those suffering from diabetes. I know many of our readers would be very interested to hear how this new technology is advancing.

Sabur: This is such an important project that would improve the lives of millions of diabetics. The development of a non‐invasive monitor has come a long way but has a way to go in reaching people with diabetes. It's kind of like when computers were first invented and they took up an entire room. The technology is there for a non‐invasive blood glucose monitor. It's a matter of making it work.

Kruschwitz: Science is not your only passion; you are also a world renowned clarinetist who was deemed a music prodigy after you made your orchestral debut performing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, at age 11. Is there one musician who would be a dream come true to perform with?

Sabur: There are so many wonderful conductors, orchestras and chamber groups. I would love to perform with those who love clarinet and would like to collaborate with me. Of course I would be honored to be invited to perform with any of the world's great orchestras.

Kruschwitz: Your accomplishments are many within science, music and outreach, is there one, however, that you are personally most proud of?

Sabur: That's a really good question and a difficult one. I am most proud of one item from each area…in science my greatest memory was the day I graduated from Stony Brook University. In music, my greatest memory was performing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with an orchestra at 11. As far as outreach, teaching at SUNO was my privilege.

Kruschwitz: Thank you so much for taking time to give the Minorities and Women group of OSA a chance to learn more about your fascinating life. In conclusion, I would love to hear any words of advice for aspiring female scientists and engineers.

Sabur: Set your sights on your personal goal and don't let stereotypes stop you. Do what interests you and don't be led or misled by other's expectations.

Jennifer D. T. Kruschwitz, President, JK Consulting

Jennifer is a Sr. Optical Coating Engineer and President of her coating design firm, JK Consulting. She received her Bachelors and Masters Degree in Optics from the University of Rochester in 1989 and 1995 respectively. She has been working in the field of optical interference coatings since 19Jennifer has been an active member of OSA since 1990, serving in a variety of volunteer and governance capacities.