Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Ciara Close

By Jennifer Kruschwitz

Ciara Close
Ph.D. candidate in Photopolymers and their applications
Advisor: Prof. John Sheridan
 
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 student members for the MWOSA newsletter, I jumped at the chance.

This month I had the opportunity to talk with Ciara Close, a student at University College Dublin, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. under Prof. John Sheridan. I caught up with her to talk about her research, outreach work and experiences at past OSA conferences.

Kruschwitz: Ciara, it is so nice to speak with you again and I’m glad to see you are still involved in the Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA) community! If my memory serves me correctly, we worked on an MWOSA project for the 2005 OSA Annual Meeting, in Tucson, Arizona.

Close: Yeah, that was a fantastic experience! Quite a meeting of firsts for me and a wonderful introduction to the Society and the people involved with it. That was my first year as a member of the Society, it was also my first big conference, my first conference presentation AND it was the first time I had been asked to be a panelist in a discussion! It was great getting to sit at the big table with the grown ups!

Kruschwitz: Tell me a little about your early education and how you honed your interests in on science and engineering. What led you from your undergraduate work as an electrical engineer to your Ph.D. work on photopolymers?

Close: I’ll be honest with you; it was more by fortune than by design that I have ended up where I am. I was always above average at maths and science in school (I have to be careful here, Irish people are notoriously bad at blowing their own trumpets and I’m teetering very close to the edge with statements like “above average”!), as is typical of many engineers and scientists. When it came to deciding what I wanted to do in college I narrowed my list down to engineering, supermarket coordination studies, maths, classical studies, business and a couple of others thrown in for good measure! In other words, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. In the end I settled on engineering because it would combine a couple of my favorite subjects at school and the problem/solution aspect appealed to me.

The engineering courses I did, didn’t address optical engineering at all really, apart from a couple of token classes in basic laser science in the final year. (This has changed a lot in the years since I finished my undergraduate degree, with students studying aspects of optics from second year through the final year.) In the last year of my degree I had the opportunity to work with my current supervisor, Prof. John Sheridan, on a project to do with developing a program and interface for controlling and analyzing data from a holographic recording system. As a result of this I was lucky enough to secure a postgraduate placement with him, working on the models he was developing at the time and also on characterizing the photopolymer recording material.

Kruschwitz: What are the major advantages in using photopolymer materials for holographic recording and data storage? I would love to learn more about the work you are doing in Dublin.

Close: There are a number of reasons why photopolymers are particularly useful in terms of holography. The material can be made to have a good sensitivity to light and also it has good optical properties. Another bonus of using these materials for this application is they are relatively cheap, easy to work with and don’t require any messing around with after information has been written into them, unlike other materials used in holography which is particularly important for data storage applications. I don’t think people using them for data storage would be into the idea of turning their computer rooms into chemistry labs! The work we are doing relates to developing a theoretical model of the processes that occur in these materials during the recording process. This involves understanding the dynamics taking place as well as the photochemical and photo‐physical processes that occur in the material and then incorporating them into the overall model.

Kruschwitz: You have attended many OSA meetings in the past. I always find them to be amazing places to network and meet some of the optics community’s icons. When I was student, I remember being thrilled at the opportunity to meet some of the leading scientists in the field. Do you ever find yourself star struck?

Close: God yeah! The first FiO I attended was the meeting in Tucson in 2005. Just before the meeting Roy Glauber, John Hall and Theodor Hänsch had all been announced as co‐recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics. Roy Glauber won for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence and John Hall and Ted Hansch had won for their contributions to the development of laser‐based precision spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique and all three of them were in attendance at the conference. The idea of meeting a Nobel Prize winner was a world away from me ‐ I was like a little girl getting to meet Justin Timberlake!

Nicolaas Bloembergen who won the prize in 1981 was there too. A bigger buzz than any of those (although they’re not to be sniffed at) was coming across Herwig Kogelnik at the meeting. His 1969 paper on coupled wave theory as applied to thick holographic gratings is one I ALMOST know by heart, as it’s important in the work we’re doing. His paper is treated with reverence by people in our group so to actually meet the man himself was like being at the altar!

Kruschwitz: Are there any Optics Celebs’ you would like to meet or work with, but haven’t yet had the opportunity?

Close: Of course, which is where being an active member in the Society throws up some great benefits. Having a very positive relationship with the staff at OSA provides you with many opportunities of being introduced to the “Optics Celebs”! At every OSA meeting I’ve been to I come across the people who are working on the exciting stuff we get to read about every month in the magazines like OPN. You find yourself chatting with people at conferences and then realizing “Oh, you’re the guy who…”, or “you got to work with so‐and‐so!”, I love that.
Having said all of that, I’m excited about having the chance to work with my peers from around the world who I’ve met through the Society, people like Yasaman Soudagar and Meredith Lee, who you’ve already had the chance to interview!

Kruschwitz: I love the fact our Student Chapters are leveraging their OSA connections and building cross‐country relationships as well as professional development and networking opportunities. That’s great! Will your Chapter be hosting an event anytime soon?

Close: We are quite a small chapter so we don’t get to hold as many events as we’d like because it can eat into our time. We have a few things coming up over the next couple of months which we’re looking forward to. At the last FiO, in San Jose, California, I was lucky enough to meet Prof. Anthony Siegman, Stanford University, and managed to convince him that a trip to Ireland was in order – in fairness, how could you turn down such a request! So we’re hoping he’ll be over to visit around the end of the summer.

We’ve also got Steen Hanson from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) coming to visit and also a lecturer from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUI). We’ll be running lunch time lectures as well, in which our chapter members and people from various departments will be giving talks on their work in an effort to encourage a collaborative dynamic between students from different specialties.

Aside from these, we’re hoping to have a couple of barbeques over the course of the summer for a bit of chill out time and will be working on developing our outreach program.

Kruschwitz: In addition to networking with other Student Chapters, you have been involved with both local and international education outreach efforts. Would you tell me about one of your most fulfilling local outreach events?

Close: It would probably be the first one I was involved with. We organized it with my sister who is a primary school teacher and had so much fun coming up with the experiments. The kitchen was an absolute mess by the time we were through, but what else do moms have to do apart from clean up! Just kidding – she’d kill me for that and rightly so! Anyway, my sister was teaching 4th grade class students at the time, that’s about 10 years of age here – I’m not sure of the grade in U.S. terms. We crammed in as many ‘WOW’ experiments as we possibly could and made sure the children could actively partake in all of them. We didn’t just focus on optics, but brought in chemistry, biology, math and physics. It was a manic day, but so much fun. It was incredible how fast the day went, that always gives you a good idea of how  enjoyable an event is, if you don’t even notice the time fly past. It was incredibly satisfying to see the classroom descend into ordered chaos with the children being so excited about their fizzpop rockets and making square bubbles and getting to put mentos in coke – that one is always a winner!

Kruschwitz: The OSA Student Chapters’ Education Outreach Directory proved to be indispensible to the redesign of OSA’s educational website, www.OpitcsForKids.org; how did the idea for the directory come about and what is its purpose to the OSA Chapter and Section community?

Close: The Optics For Kids site looks fantastic – there’s a wealth of information to be found on it! I love how the two projects were able to compliment each other so well. First and foremost I think credit for the outreach directory must go to Brad Bower at Duke University who was one of the people who came up with the concept, took charge of the project and managed it with aplomb. The rest of us involved had such an easy time because he did such a great job! It was fantastic being involved in a project that brought together people from universities all over the world, from the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Ireland.

It was a wonderful idea that was intended as an education resource for chapters around the world. There are so many student chapters (+130) and local sections (+25) and many of them don’t have a large number of members, so organizing an outreach event becomes a much bigger challenge than it needs to be. The idea with the Directory is that every chapter would upload information on the outreach projects they had carried out – experiments, demonstrations, posters etc. to the site giving details about how much the event cost to hold, what topics were covered and what age group they’re suitable for and then visitors to the site can see this information and download the relevant bits and pieces, thereby easing the effort involved in developing an outreach activity. It’s also great for bigger chapters with an established outreach program who may want an injection of new ideas

Kruschwitz: You aren’t just dedicated to outreach to kids, but in addition, you believe in providing outreach activities for your fellow peers, specifically related to improving both technical writing and presentation skills. Why do you think this is important and what has your Chapter done to address this education gap?

Close: The transition from an undergrad student to a post grad student is a pretty significant one. The dynamic is totally different and requires a wider range of skills that aren’t necessarily provided at an undergrad level; for example: communicating ideas effectively, both in written and oral form, understanding of the structure of academia around the research and how to effectively obtain funding etc.

The importance of this was hammered home when I was preparing my first conference presentation! As student chapter members, we are in a unique position to see the issues that affect our fellow students and we have finances to try to address these issues. We have held a number of events to deal with these. We organized a presentation skills day, with the help of Barry Brophy, a lecturer in applied dynamics who specializes in presentations skills. He talked about common problems that are encountered and about attacking the presentation from the right angle. He filmed us all talking about a topic of our choice so we could see how good/ bad/awful/diabolical we actually were! This was particularly useful in lying to rest some ghosts from conferences past!

We also had Dr. Paul Dodd, head of industry‐research development at Science Foundation Ireland, one of our main funding bodies in Ireland, come to visit. He talked about the structure of the various funding schemes available to young researchers and the common issues they come across when dealing with applications for funding. These kinds of activities are really useful to give students a deeper understanding of academia and industry.

Kruschwitz: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me! Any parting advice for someone who is interested in becoming more involved in the OSA community?

Close: The one thing I think its necessary to emphasize to people new to the Society, or indeed people who are now looking to get involved, is that the Society brings together people from all areas of the optics community and that the people who actually do the “bringing together” are the staff at OSA headquarters. I think it’s incredibly important to develop a good positive relationship with the staff at OSA. They are a fantastic bunch of people who do wonderful work and aren’t always acknowledged for it. The opportunities I have had, whether it was being invited to be on the panel discussion with you, Jennifer, or to be part of the international group of students who developed the outreach library, or starting a local chapter, or indeed being asked to do this interview, have all come about due to having a good relationship with the staffers! Once they get to know you and know you’re a positive, enthusiastic person, they won’t hesitate to put your name forward for different projects that come up that you wouldn’t otherwise hear about!

Finally, thanks to you Jennifer for doing this series of interviews. It’s interesting to hear all about the MWOSA members in other countries and what they’re getting up too.

Looking forward to a great conference in Rochester ’08!

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.