Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Arlene Smith

By Kylee Coffman

Arlene Smith
PhD Student in Experimental Physics (Optics) at the National University Ireland, Galway

This month I had the pleasure of meeting with Arlene Smith, OSA Student Chapter President and Founder of the NUI Galway Student Chapter. Smith is preparing to graduate soon from the Postdoctoral Optics Program at NUI. Her chapter also recently organized the 7th IONS Europe meeting. We found a few minutes between conference events to discuss her research and plans post graduation. The video interview is available on the PodBlog.

Coffman: For those in the community who aren't familiar with you, since 2006 you have been pursuing a PhD in experimental physics (optics) under the supervision of Chris Dainty at the National University of Ireland Galway. What is the focus of your research?

Smith: My research involves modelling partially coherent imaging systems. This has applications in lithography, in the area of defocus effects in the image plane and in optimization of reticle design. My project has involved quite a lot of simulation work but recently I have been spending more time in the laboratory.

Coffman: You're preparing to graduate in December of this year. Do you know what your next step will be? Would you prefer to stay in Ireland?

Smith: That's a difficult question to answer really! As a PhD student you spend so much time focused on your project, working to get the results you need, so it can be difficult to plan. Through the IONS network I have made so many friends from so many institutions across the world and I would love to visit and work in them all! I guess we will have to see what happens when I graduate!

Coffman: IONS-7 is currently happening here at the University of Ireland, Galway and your chapter organized this event. Can you tell everyone a little bit about IONS?

Smith: IONS, also known as the International OSA Network of Students, connects student members from around the globe who are all actively engaged in optics and photonics. IONS meetings are held twice yearly in Europe and once a year in Australia, Asia and North America. The meetings are all student-organised and student-focused, making for quite a different experience than the 'usual' scientific conference! 16 Student Chapters came to Galway for our meeting, and it really has been an exciting and educational couple of days. Our meeting is in keeping with the true IONS ethos: we have plenary sessions from leaders in Optics & Photonics research, technical talks and poster sessions from IONS attendees, Student Chapter sessions, Professional Development Sessions (we had local entrepreneurs speak about their experiences in setting up a company at IONS-7) and that's all finished off with a social day so students can get to chat more and see some of the city they are visiting. IONS-7 is the 7th European meeting, it is my third IONS meeting and the 11th meeting in the IONS series. The enthusiasm of everyone involved in IONS has been incredible and we have received terrific support from OSA and from other organizations, companies and institutions. I am very excited to see the future of IONS, to see what it will become!

Coffman: You and the rest of the NUIG Student Chapter have done an incredible job of organizing IONS- 7, which must take quite a bit of work. This type of meeting planning takes much effort and energy to coordinate, especially with a busy school schedule. What has been your greatest learning experience from this? Any horror stories or organizing frustrations you'd like to share?

Smith: Organising this meeting has been an incredible learning experience. I have learned alot about time management and delegation! [Laughs] But really, you develop a whole suite of skills, from raising sponsorship funds to approaching distinguished speakers to ask them to give their time to the students of IONS. It's a small bit of work every week, which builds up to a more stressful week around the event. The most important thing is to have a dedicated team around you, which I was very lucky to have. Because of them, and their hard work, everything has gone smoothly for IONS-7.

Coffman: That it has! Speaking of this dedicated team you have, you actually founded the NUI Galway Student Chapter in 2008 and are the current chapter President. What inspired you to start this chapter? Were you already familiar with OSA and chapter benefits?

Smith: In late 2007, my advisor (Chris Dainty) returned from Frontiers in Optics (FiO) with tales of Student Chapters and how the numbers had begun to increase so rapidly! I had a look around the OSA website and found out how easy it was to set up a chapter! Along with the Applied Optics Group, where I study, there is also a Laser Centre (NCLA) right beside us. So I gathered the students from both groups together and formed the chapter in January 2008. I had read about the chapter benefits online, but it only when I attended the Chapter Leadership Meeting at FiO in Oct '08 that I really learned that there is funding there for chapters to apply for and that there are many people at OSA to answer our questions and help us along as a chapter. I also found meeting other chapter
leaders really inspirational. We heard about projects they had done in their community with their chapters and, of course, we heard about IONS and how, at that time, it was really starting to take off!

Coffman: Right before IONS you were attending a conference in San Jose on lithography? Can you tell me a little more about the conference and your time there?

Smith: I attended the SPIE meeting on Advanced Lithography, which, for my project, is the key meeting each year. This year I presented a poster on my research. It was my third time to attend this conference and I really enjoy it. It's a large meeting and it is well attended by academics and also researchers from industry. Every year it is exciting as newer technology has been developed and is presented.

Coffman: What has been the greatest obstacle you've overcome in pursuing your degree?

Smith: I think, for many people, the PhD path has many obstacles. It can be difficult to find the project you want, the right supervisor, secure funding. I have been very lucky in this case, and I really enjoy my work with Chris. But even with all that in place, you still have to overcome smaller hurdles as you go through your PhD. I found that writing my first conference paper and presenting it was a nerve-wracking experience, but once you have the first time over it becomes much easier! I've also had the 'usual' PhD student problems with equipment delays, simulations not working, which can be frustrating. But, you know, everyone else goes through it and there's always someone to chat to and someone to help you out.

Coffman: What attracted you to physics? Was it someone in your family or a teacher early on?

Smith: When I started secondary school I took my first full science course and I really liked it. I found I preferred the physics sections in the course more than the chemistry and biology parts, so when we had to pick subjects for our final school exams, I picked physics and, along with maths, it was my favourite subject. I was never totally sure what course I would do in University…. I always leaned towards physics and engineering and at the last minute I picked a B.Sc. in Physics and Astronomy…. and here I am!

Coffman: How would you describe the education you've received so far? Do you think young girls in Ireland are encouraged to study math and science?

Smith: I went to an all-girls secondary school and while my physics class was small, the chemistry and biology classes were bigger and popular with the students. Every year here in NUI Galway, girls are well-represented in the science degree courses, though in greater numbers in the life sciences than in the physical sciences, I would say. My undergraduate degree class was 80% female but my M.Sc class was about 10% female so it varies! We are involved in educational outreach in the community in the research group here and I think that school visits like ours can really help to promote science to young children and show it is an exciting career option.

Coffman: What advice would you give to girls wishing to pursue a career in physics?

Smith: Well my advice to anyone making choices in their career is always to pick the subjects you find the most interesting. This applies to any subject and of course to Physics. I have met so many intelligent and enthusiastic up-and-coming women in optics since I started my PhD and then founded the Student Chapter here. So any girls thinking about a career in physics will be in good company!

Coffman: What are your interests outside of science?

Smith: I love to travel! I have visited many countries in Europe and I have travelled around some parts of the US. Attending a conference abroad is always a great excuse to spend some extra time in a city or touring around the area! I enjoy baking, which other student chapter members often benefit from! I also try to help out in the community. I am an active volunteer for Oxfam Ireland, which involves working in the Oxfam FairTrade Shop here in Galway for a few hours a week when I can. In secondary school I studied French and German and I really enjoyed it. I would love to get back to learning languages when I finish my PhD.