Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Dorota Szczesna

By Jennifer Kruschwitz

Dorota Szczesna
Dorota Szczesna

Meeting brilliant people striving to make long-lasting contributions to the field of optics as well as the scienceeducation community, has been a regular occurrence since my affiliation with the Optical Society. So when OSA asked me to interview and profile a few of the Society's female student members for these newsletters, I jumped at the chance.

This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Dorota Szczesna, an OSA Student Member originally from Wroclaw, Poland, who currently resides in Brisbane, Australia. Szczesna is the recipient of the Endeavor Research Fellowship Award and is currently undertaking the Postdoctoral Research program at Queensland University of Technology, School of Optometry.

Kruschwitz: Growing up in Wroclaw, Poland, how did your passion for science begin? I imagine that having two parents who are chemistry teachers probably influenced you immensely; was that the case?

Szczesna: I grew up in an academic environment. However, my parents did not actively encourage me to pursue a science degree. Although, they always recognized that I had more talent for science than for arts. Since my high school years, I have been interested in optics and, I believe, my Mom contributed to that passion by showing and explaining to me many optical tricks.

Kruschwitz: You are currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, School of Optometry in Brisbane, Australia. How would you compare/contrast studying optics in Poland versus Australia?

Szczesna: The two educational systems are different. In Poland, we put more emphasis on theoretical aspects of optics, mathematics and basic physics. In Australia, in the School of Optometry, more emphasis is placed on practical aspects of health care and patient management.

Kruschwitz: Your volunteerism and educational outreach efforts are quite impressive! Between 2007 and 2008 you assisted in screening measurements of children's vision throughout the villages surrounding Wroclaw city. Can you tell us more about this project?

Szczesna: We focused on children from families with particular needs. For many of them that was the first contact with an optometrist. We tested visual acuity, stereoscopic vision, and color vision. The aim was to identify those in need of refractive correction and find sponsors who would cover the expenses.

Kruschwitz: Sounds like an incredible experience with a rewarding mission! From what I understand, you also routinely give lectures to school children about physics and optics and recently volunteered in the Lower Silesian Festival of Science where you staged a show entitled: The Magic World of Physics. How did the show turn out?

Szczesna: In Wroclaw we have an annual Science Festival, where many universities and colleges get involved. Our show was part of this festival. We visited a few primary schools to introduce children to the basic world of physics. We had a set of interactive hands-on experiments. Children, as well as their teachers, are in much anticipation for next year's show!

Kruschwitz: Speaking of hands-on experiments, you have also given lectures based on the Liquid Crystals Education Kit delivered to you from Rochester Section Optical Society of America. How did you prepare the lecture?

Szczesna: The lecture was prepared based on a plan for Middle School students entitled Liquid Crystals and Mood Patches. My colleagues and I prepared a presentation about the basic information of light properties and liquid crystals using the Liquid Crystals Education Kit (inter alia) from Rochester University. Students could create their own thermometer and learn about the possibility of application of different kinds of LC. Every presentation and questions from the students inspires us to improve and widen the demonstration with new elements, shows and examples. These presentations are also a good opportunity to open teenagers' minds to physics and encourage them to be more interested in science.

Kruschwitz: Having exposed students from various levels (primary, secondary, and high school) to the magic of physics, is there a certain age group you prefer to work with? Do you see yourself working in education in the future?

Szczesna: The experience of teaching students at different levels is very rewarding. However, I would prefer to work with high school students, as it is easier to explain to them the basic principal of optics. Although it is likely I will focus on education, at present, I am primarily interested in pursuing my research career.

Kruschwitz: Speaking of your research career, the mechanics of vision and optics of the human eye are the focus of your studies. When we last spoke, the main aim of your current project was to provide more definitive answers to the behavior of the pre-corneal tear film and develop and new theoretical (mathematical/physical) framework for its analysis and modeling. Are there any recent developments in your research that you'd like to share with the MWOSA audience?

Szczesna: Definitely! I have been involved with exciting research in which we non-invasively measure the tear film surface quality using three different optical methods. They include Lateral Shearing Interferometry, Wavefront Sensing and Videokeratoscopy. For me, personally, the most exciting thing is being part of a great interdisciplinary research team.

Kruschwitz: How has your experience been working with Dr. Robert Iskander and Prof. Michael Collins at the School of Optometry at Queensland Univ. of Technology in Brisbane, Australia?

Szczesna: The team at QUT, led by Prof. Collins, is a group of people with diversified skills. It includes optometrists, optical, electrical and biomedical engineers and ophthalmologists. Working in such a team is a great experience which I have not had back in Poland. Dr D. Robert Iskander is currently my mentor. He is the supervisor of my Endeavour Research Award, which I got from the Australian Government to do the project at QUT in Australia. We work together and I learn a lot from him. He is giving me many valuable advises regarding the research work and also my scientific career.

Kruschwitz: In March 2007 you established the OSA Student Chapter at the Wroclaw University of Technology and have been a member of the board ever since. You've also been a member of the Organizing and Scientific Committee of the 2nd International Student Chapter Meetings (2007) and 3rd International Student Chapter Meetings (2008), in addition to the Organizing Committee of the 16th Polish-Slovak-Czech Optical Conference in Polanica, Poland in 2008. What motivated you to start the Student Chapter at your university and these various committees?

Szczesna: I recognized that a professional organization, such as OSA, can be of significant benefit to our students. We have initiated annual student chapter conferences which we called International Student Chapters Meeting. The basic idea of this meeting was to help young students to get in the scientific world of optics and photonics and to educate and to inspire them. Our aim was also to integrate chapters from Poland and from Europe. The meetings have been entirely organized and made by students. We started with a small, almost spontaneous meeting in 2006 and two years later the third meeting was organized together with three student chapters: SPIE, OSA and PHOBIA from Wroclaw University of Technology and accumulated 50 students from ten chapters. We invited two professors from Ireland and USA using the funds given by OSA and SPIE. We are very proud that this year's meeting, which has moved to Torun, was again a great success.

Kruschwitz: Dorota, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me! Do you have any closing observations for children who are considering a career in science?

Szczesna: It is important to learn basic mathematics and physics at school. Do not be afraid of technical subjects, but most importantly follow your heart. Thank you very much!

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.