Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Brooke Hester

By Jennifer Kruschwitz

Brooke Hester
Brooke Hester

PhD student working in the Optical Tweezers Lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Advisor:Kristian Helmerson

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 chance to speak with Brooke Hester, a PhD student working in the Optical Tweezers Lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She recently founded the University of Maryland, College Park Student Chapter and is already heavily involved in OSA, attending Congressional Visits Day and planning an event for other student chapters in the area. Take a moment to read about her many accomplishments and advice for future women in optics!

Kruschwitz: You graduated Magna Cum Laude from Appalachian State University with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, but pursued a Masters in Applied Physics; did you always know you would eventually move into the fields of Optics and Physics?

Hester: Not at all. As an undergraduate, I studied mathematics because I knew it could be applied to many other fields, although I had no idea which one I wanted to follow. I realized soon after taking some physics courses that one of the most beautiful things about mathematics is its usefulness as a tool for physics. I studied some optics while working on my Masters degree, but did not yet see the beauty of the discipline. Only after I began working experimentally with optics did I realize how fascinating the study of light can be. Now I don't think I could find a more interesting line of work.

Kruschwitz: You are now a PhD student at the University of Maryland studying Chemical Physics and working in the Optical Tweezers lab within the Laser Cooling and Trapping Group at NIST; what is the most exciting part of your research for you personally?

Hester: Besides working with some of the most talented physicists in the world, and besides being given this incredible opportunity to work at one of the best facilities in the world, I would have to say that the most exciting part of my research is when I finally get that quantitative result that I've been working on for so long. As an added bonus, playing with Optical Tweezers really is fun. My labmates have been known to use my setup like a videogame. But only after many unrelenting hours of hard work.

Kruschwitz: You headed up the formation of the new OSA/SPIE Student Chapter at the University of Maryland; what motivated you to form this group and what have been some of your favorite activities thus far?

Hester: While attending an SPIE conference, I was surprised to learn that the University of Maryland ‐College Park did not have an OSA student chapter nor an SPIE student chapter. Our optics‐related programs are very strong, and many optics and photonics students could benefit from such a group which provides scholarships, grants, and other opportunities. Our campus is just a few miles from downtown Washington DC, which is the location of the OSA headquarters, and is also where most of the legislation determining the future of science in our country takes place. So I saw several missed opportunities for students at UMD, and wanted to prevent that in the future. Since the formation of our chapter, we've been able to take direct advantage of our close proximity to Capitol Hill. In March, I and another member of our student chapter attended Congressional Visits Days as OSA representatives to speak to members of Congress and their staff about the need for increased funding in research and development. Through the chapter, I was also given the honor of serving as a science fair judge in the Regional Virginia Science Fair. I was completely unprepared for the amount of fun I would have there. It was refreshing and energizing to see young people liking science.

Kruschwitz: I have heard great things about the Congressional Visits Day program, would you tell us a bit about the event and what you took away from the experience?

Hester: Congressional Visits Day is an event bringing together researchers from academia and industry with their state representatives and members of congress to discuss the need for increased federal funding in our areas of research, and for research and development in general. Any member of the OSA can volunteer to be a part of this program. The members of our student chapter saw this as a great opportunity to learn about funding in our field while perhaps making an impact on the budget allocated to our colleagues. We first learned from OSA representatives the details of the budget process on Capitol Hill, and then learned tips on how to communicate effectively with members of Congress and their staff. Then, armed with information and determination, we met individually with our Representatives, Senators, and their staff to explain our platforms. The day was completed by a meeting with Rep. Bart Gordon, the chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, who spoke to us about his efforts to aid us in our cause. Going home that day, I felt like one person really can make a difference.

Kruschwitz: I was told that you were recently at OSA Headquarters to discuss starting a group similar to the International OSA Network of Students (IONS) here in the US. Could you tell us a bit about this project and the benefits you feel it could bring to OSA Student Chapters throughout the US?

Hester: The OSA offers programs like student chapters so that people can take advantage of scholarships and grants, as well as networking opportunities. IONS is one such program, and is a collection of European student chapters that meets twice yearly to learn about optics‐related research, hone leadership skills, and network with researchers in the field. While many OSA student chapters exist in the United States, and while members may network through OSA sponsored conferences, there still is no cohesive platform for student members to meet and communicate with members of other student chapters. With a program like IONS, students based in the US will be able to more easily arrange student‐organized conferences, collective outreach activities, and will meet more of their current and future colleagues. The work is already underway, and has begun with the formulation of ACOPS, the Atlantic Conference for Optics and Photonics Students. This is a meeting whose organization is in the beginning stages, but already shows promise with twelve student groups participating so far.

Kruschwitz: What kind of future do you envision for other women who are beginning to explore Optics as a career?

Hester: I see more opportunities for women just beginning in Optics than there were for those who came before them. The field of Optics is huge and continues to grow quickly. With a booming industry, the need for innovation and the need to pass on knowledge to future innovators also grows. My hope for Optics and Photonics is that this field will encourage its followers to pursue careers focusing on research while also prioritizing outreach, education, and community involvement.

Kruschwitz: Thank you for taking some time to talk with me! Do you have any closing remarks for kids who are considering a career in science?

Hester: Science is fun! Most careers require staring at a computer screen all day. A scientific profession is one full of surprises and amusement where you least expect it, especially with the "toys" now available. Where else can you improve the world and have this much fun doing it?

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 1988. Jennifer has been an active member of OSA since 1990, serving in a variety of volunteer and governance capacities.