Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Amy Sullivan

MWOSA Newsletter Special Feature- Winter 2011
By Alison Jordan

Amy Sullivan
PhD in Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder
OSA Member since: 2004

Jordan: You have participated in some exciting professional development opportunities. Can you tell me a little about one program in particular and how it shaped your interest in Optics?

Sullivan: My interest in Optics originated at Bates College, where I did my undergraduate work. I took an Optics course my junior year that I really enjoyed, but I did not think much of that as a field to pursue until the summer after my junior year when I worked with George Ruff at Bates College in his lab for the summer. We worked on building a dual species atom trap, trapping both Rb and Cs using lasers tuned to the resonance of these atoms. While this is a common technique now, it was a rather large project to build up from an empty table for an undergraduate and her advisor. The project involved working on electronic circuits to precisely control the wavelength of the laser, designing and building the optical system, and putting together an appropriate vacuum sealed cell as well as understanding some atomic physics. While my advisor wanted me to get experience in all aspects of the project, I quickly focused on the optical system. I loved learning how to manipulate the light on the table. Ever since, I have been fascinated with light and lasers and have never questioned specializing in Optics.

Jordan: In addition to your studies and contributions to The Optical Society and its Young Professionals Program, you have been very active with groups such as the American Association of Physics, Project Kaleidoscope and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Why do you think participation in professional groups such as these are so important?

Sullivan: Participating in professional groups allows me to be a part of a larger research group and stay connected with others with similar interests. Regular correspondence from these groups also keeps us abreast of new research, opportunities for grants and fellowships, and current events related to our fields. For example, through my participation in Project Kaleidoscope, I became aware of a Leadership Institute for Junior Faculty that was held in July 2010. This institute was an amazing opportunity for me to identify my strengths and weaknesses, grow as a leader, and refine my goals to better plan my career plan.

Meetings help me to meet new people with whom I might be able to collaborate. Research meetings such as Frontiers in Optics have led to research collaborations, and education meetings, such as the New Physics Faculty workshop, have led to discussions about improvements in teaching Physics.

Jordan: I see that educational outreach is important to you and that you have not only attended OSA’s Frontiers in Optics but were also the first Young Professional to be a judge of the FiO competition. Why do you believe supporting these types of effort is important?

Sullivan: Undergraduate education and outreach are extremely important to me. Interest in Physics is fairly low among children and high school students and outreach in optics and lasers is a great way to encourage interest in these subjects and show students practical applications of Physics. Encouraging this interest at a young age will help encourage students to see these subjects as interesting and useful areas to pursue. Making Physics, which is commonly thought of as difficult and abstract, more accessible helps students to see how they can become involved themselves.

Jordan: Do you currently have a mentor? Tell me a little about how a mentor has been a professional and/or academic assistance to you as you’ve strived to fulfill your career goals?

Sullivan: I have several mentors. I have found mentors officially through MentorNet and through the Project Kaleidoscope Leadership Institute and unofficially through my every day professional activities. Mentors are essential to a successful career and I recommend that everyone find a mentor with whom they communicate well. One of the times that I have found having a mentor the most useful was when I was applying for jobs at small liberal arts colleges. I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado, a large research university, and did not receive a lot of guidance on how to pursue a career at a smaller college. Having a mentor who was at a small liberal arts college was a huge help. I could frequently email questions ranging from how to write a teaching statement to how to dress for an interview. I received feedback on my statements and felt much less isolated and more confident throughout the application process

Jordan: I noticed from your bio that you are very interested in Diffraction and Photopolymers and have a patent pending for “Diffraction Unlimited Photolithography.” Tell me a little about that and what it means for the future. How do you see this technology transforming over the next few years?

Sullivan: A major limitation in optical fabrication is making the minimum feature size smaller and smaller to increase density of circuits. The minimum feature size is determined by the spot size of the optical lithography system, which is determined by the wavelength of the illumination. The process of Diffraction Unlimited Photolithography overcomes the diffraction limit and allows features to be created in photopolymers that are smaller than those allowed by the diffraction limit. The method uses two illumination wavelengths, one to write structures into the photopolymer and one to inhibit the process, so that one wavelength writes the structures, while the other ‘erases’ the edges. The two wavelengths combine to create much finer structures than are possible with a single laser beam. This technique will help in the development of smaller and denser integrated circuits and opens up a new method of approaching nanotechnology.   

Jordan: What are some difficulties or challenges you’ve had to face and/or currently face being a woman/minority in your field?

Sullivan: One of the most challenging parts of being a woman in Physics, other than the blatant sexism that I have encountered throughout my career, is the loneliness. Not having women colleagues to talk over ideas and challenges with is a bit isolating. I always looked forward to women in science meetings or the rare lunch with my only woman colleague as an opportunity to talk to others who felt the same way I did. This is one of the other main reasons that I reached out and found mentors during my career. Having a community of people who support you from a variety of backgrounds and genders is really important for having a full life.

Jordan: I see that you are the Assistant Professor of Physics at Agnes Scott College. What inspires you most about teaching?

Sullivan: My students are what inspire me. While sometimes teaching can be frustrating (much like research), there are those days when my students come into class excited about the material and asking questions before class begins, or when they light up because they figured out how to do a difficult problem or have understood a concept they have been struggling with, or when they used skills you taught them to get a job or succeed in another course. There is really nothing that can compare to that feeling that you have really positively affected the life of another human being.

Jordan: What was the last non-scientific book that you read?

Sullivan: The last non-scientific book I read was called Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier. I love to read novels about magic and she is an amazing author. These types of books help me to unwind and relax after a long day of teaching or working in the lab. Escaping into a completely different world is one of my favorite pastimes.

Jordan: What do you like to do outside the lab?

Sullivan: Other than reading, I enjoy knitting, yoga, rock climbing and making cookies (a hobby of mine that my students very much enjoy). Rock climbing is like a puzzle for mind and body altogether, which is fantastic stress relief. You have to figure out how to get up the wall most efficiently and then use all your muscle groups to make it up. My husband and I also love to travel. Anywhere that we have not yet been is a great destination. In the past few years, we have traveled to Europe, China, and visited many of the national parks in the west.

Jordan: What advice would you give to other aspiring female scientists?

Sullivan: There are still few women in science, so this career path has its challenges. Find mentors early and never try to go it alone. Finding other women scientists to talk to and who support your career is the most important step in having a successful and happy career in science.