Interview with Arti Agrawal

By Gale Mamatova

Arti received her PhD at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and is now a University Research Fellow at the City University London in the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. She participated in OSA as a topical meeting and career blogger, reviewer for travel grants sponsored by the OSA Foundation and is the 2013 Young Professional Honor Recipient.

Mamatova: Arti, thank you very much for participating in the MWOSA Interview Series. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired your interest in science?

Agrawal: I have always been intrigued by science. But the one thing that really crystallized that interest was Cosmos, the TV show by Carl Sagan. I have blogged about it as well (An ode to Cosmos.) This brilliant show just snagged my interest and it made me see this wonderful world around and how much there was to learn about. It’s hard for me to not go into raptures about it!

Mamatova: What inspires you the most about your research?

Agrawal: It’s fun! The fact that I can spend my time (and be paid) to indulge my curiosity, to try and answer questions like ‘what if…’, ‘why does this…’, ‘why doesn’t it…’ is the key motivation. At different times, meeting charismatic people, seeing something in nature, or being asked a question that I can’t answer inspires me as well.

Mamatova: 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.

Agrawal: I have a formal mentor at work and a network of informal mentors. At various times and in various ways, my mentors have given me a lot of support, advice and help. For example, one mentor gave me a lot of advice on how I should think strategically about my career at City University London--what I could do to stand out and be seen as exceptional.

Mamatova: 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 Photonics?

Agrawal: As a graduate student at IIT Delhi, way back in 2003, I was introduced to OSA and the idea of student chapters. So I set up a student chapter through which we could organize fun activities in Optics to expand and explore our interests in the field. In setting up the chapter and then attending the OSA conference as the president, I met some very inspiring researchers and people. I learned a lot about new areas in Photonics, and got a sense of the excitement in being part of the field, and a perspective of how globally this field was important. I saw how much richer and wider the field was than I had imagined.

Mamatova: I see that you’ve participated in education outreach initiatives in the past. Why do you believe supporting these types of efforts is important?

Agrawal: Education and outreach initiatives are simply fantastic for many reasons: through these it is possible to share one’s passion about Science and Optics with some very bright, curious and open minds. The questions that are sometimes asked by these young people really make you think! Pragmatically, if we want the best and brightest to enter Science and Technology, we need to motivate and inspire them. Children can develop or discard interests at an early age. So it makes sense, if we want talented people in the pipeline to come into our labs and work with us, that we need to attract them to our specific fields and see how much fun Science can be.

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

Agrawal: As a female scientist from an ethnic minority background, there are multiple challenges and some lovely experiences. You can read my post “E&D anyone?” for a more detailed take on this as well.

My somewhat limited experience is that sometimes there are stereotypes which can be negative or which typecast you. These can box people in and limit their potential. Often these things are related to unconscious thought patterns and hence not explicit. It takes a great deal of effort, energy and emotional resolve to overcome these. Yet it is important to have belief in oneself in these situations.

At some points in my career, I’ve encountered situations where I’ve had to go the extra mile to prove my competence just because of my race and/or gender. The best advice I received and have found to work for these situations is to be very good at what you do, use humor to defuse situations and to win people over, and finally to create your own unique brand, something that makes you stand out in people’s minds.

I also find that cultural differences can be challenging to adapt to. So one has to learn the working culture and practices of the adopted country that may be very different from one’s home country. When relocating internationally, from being a member of a majority group one can quickly become a minority. (In India I was similar to 99.9% of the population, but in the UK I am an ethnic minority!) There aren’t any courses in grad school that teach you about ‘life in country X’ or how to deal with homesickness, the new ‘identity’ in the new place. In developing this new identity, the adventures lead to a lot of personal growth, new friendships, perspectives, and a lot of challenges.

Mamatova: Name one of your more challenging career experiences?

Agrawal: The most challenging career experience I’ve had to date is co-writing a book (The Finite Element modeling methods for Photonics) being published by Artech House that shall be released in August. Writing it in about 13 months while carrying my full load of teaching, research, blogging and volunteer work was very challenging. It taught me a lot about the value of the support I had from my family and friends and that if we don’t have pre-conceived notions about our own limitations, we can go a lot farther.

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

Agrawal: Support other women! That is the only way the situation will improve for all of us. In fact support equality in general.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, express opinions! If you try to just fit in or be ‘no trouble’ by being unobtrusive, you risk becoming invisible. The key is to express without being offensive.