Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Meredith Lee

By Jennifer Kruschwitz
 
Meredith Lee
Meredith Lee

Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University
Ph.D. Advisors: Prof. James S. Harris and Prof. Shanhui Fan
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 . 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. After you read this first interview with Meredith Lee, Stanford University, you will quickly see just how dedicated and brilliant our young female scientists really are.

Meredith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, and has been President of the Stanford Chapter of OSA and SPIE since 2006. She received her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering from Stanford in 2004 and 2005. Her research interests include nanophotonics, integrated optoelectronics, and plasmonics. In addition to conducting research at Stanford, she has worked at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Intel, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, and Agilent Laboratories. She is a Stanford President's Scholar and the recipient of the Stanford University Dean's Award for Academic Accomplishment, a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship.
I recently spoke with Meredith and asked her about her interest in science, the importance of mentors and the need for professional societies.
 
Kruschwitz: What inspired your interest in Science?

Lee: My parents both have a technical background, so I grew up with ‘slide‐rule’ and ‘SEM’ as part of my normal vocabulary and always had fun science toys around the house. I particularly loved prisms as a kid, but our K‐12 curriculum didn’t emphasize optics much, so there was a large gap between the toddler‐discovering‐rainbows stage and my ‘rediscovery’ of optics in late high school and college. My interest in general science was fueled by exciting hands‐on projects starting in elementary and middle school. We dissected squid and then sautéed and ate it, built racecars out of mouse traps, and had all sorts of mishaps with Bunsen burners. It was great!
 
Kruschwitz: Tell me a little about how you rediscovered the science of optics and how you turned that interest into a pursuit of a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
 
Lee: My high school biology teacher, Steve Schlink, encouraged me to apply to a summer research program offered at UC Davis where high schoolers were mentored by grad students and faculty. In that program, I studied how to differentiate E. coli coming from different animals to trace sources of water contamination. I met a great group of students from all over California, and a few of us entered our projects in local science fairs. It was my first science fair experience, and I received the grand prize! I went on to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), where I met even more people who had done really neat science projects. I was discussing science and art with one of my ISEF chaperones, Heidi Black, when she recommended a book called On The Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science by Frankel and Whitesides. It features very colorful, artistic, high‐magnification photos. Naturally, I wanted to learn how to take photos like that – and when I entered Stanford later that year as an undergrad, I kept my eye out for imaging and materials science courses.
 
I knew I wanted to study engineering, and Stanford’s EE department offered a good variety of courses and specializations. Since I enjoyed my research experience at UC Davis, I sought out groups for independent study during freshman year. I worked with a team developing an integrated Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser and fluorescence detector. The project gave me hands‐on experience with optoelectronics and exposure to biochemistry. In addition, I learned about other projects and developed an interest in photonics by attending weekly research group meetings.
 
Our undergrad program at the time didn’t have a photonics specialization, so I created an ‘Individually Designed’ one and kept taking optics classes. The advanced grad classes and labs were very interesting, and by the time I took the nanophotonics class that was newly offered in our department, I was hooked – there were so many fascinating topics to study! At the same time, I had been immersed in various industrial research settings during the summers, some featuring seminars about grad school and career paths for the interns. It became clear that the Ph.D. was a great opportunity to dive into a research topic and learn how to approach fun and challenging problems.
 
Kruschwitz: You have had the opportunity to participate in some exciting internship programs. Can you tell me a little about one program and how it shaped your interest in optics?
 
Lee: When I interned at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, I investigated a phenomenon called the ‘fiber fuse’: when an optical fiber has high power densities, the presence of a defect can create a spark that travels along the fiber, destroying its guiding properties. I had 2 great mentors, Dr. Todd Ulmer and Dr. Jeffrey Roth, who made sure I would have the lab space, equipment, and other resources needed to conduct really neat optics experiments and simulations. They helped me set up the optics tables with components that I had never seen before, and I learned so much in a short time. We had regular discussions on all aspects of the project, not only during my internship but also afterwards when I had left and was writing a paper about the results.
 
The environment was also great for learning about different topics in optics. We had guests come to the labs to give technical seminars, and when he was in town, my advisor Prof. Jim Harris even visited the labs. It was a productive and unique mix of short‐term industry/government projects and more long‐term academic‐oriented optics research that I really enjoyed.

Kruschwitz: In addition to your studies and internships, you have been very active with groups such as the Stanford Society of Women Engineers and the Optical Society of America. Why do you think participation in professional groups such as these are helpful to aspiring engineers?
 
Lee: Getting involved in these professional societies is a great way to meet people with similar technical interests and goals. For young aspiring engineers, most of the professional society members will be older and wiser, with lots of advice. Having this network filled with role models and peers is very helpful during career milestones and transitions.
 
In addition, these societies tend to be quite broad in technical scope, so chances are if you go to an organization‐wide event you will meet someone in a different field and learn about something new! You can immediately see this from looking at the wide array of topics in conferences organized by these societies.
 
There are many more reasons to join a professional society, but one I’d like to highlight is the chance to develop leadership skills. Instead of just attending events, students can get involved in the planning and take charge of their own ‘education outside of the classroom’ – setting up field trips to companies, creating platforms for technical exchange with other groups, and any other activities they can imagine!
 
Kruschwitz: The Stanford OSA Student Chapter seems to be of great interest and importance to you right now. I would love to hear a little more about the chapter and why you consider it an important part of your professional development.
 
Lee: Our chapter is a student‐run group interested in the promotion of optics; we work to provide exciting technical, networking, career, and science education outreach events to as large of a community as possible. We started out as a small organization mainly focusing on inviting technical speakers to campus, and have grown rapidly in our efforts to reach a broader audience. Our Executive Planning Team now includes students and post‐docs from multiple departments, and the attendees to our public events reflect how far‐reaching optics has become. Recently we had standing room only in a 186‐seat auditorium for a seminar on solar cells – besides representation from the science/engineering departments, there were business and law students, people from industry, and even local high school teachers!
 
We have also found that by partnering with our society headquarters, other student chapters, and groups like the Stanford Photonics Research Center, we can offer larger events to encourage more interaction amongst the San Francisco Bay Area optics community. Helping to organize such programming definitely enhances my professional network—whether it’s been planning a laboratory visit or organizing a photonics poster session with OSA, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with really great individuals who excel in their fields.
 
Kruschwitz: You mentioned educational outreach as part of the chapter’s activities. I read the Optics and Photonics News article on the 2007 Science Educators Day (EDAY) which your chapter and others hosted during Frontiers in Optics last September in San Jose. Why do you believe supporting these types of efforts is important?
 
Lee: Looking back on my K‐12 public school experience, I was fortunate to have a number of enthusiastic teachers who encouraged creativity and were very imaginative themselves in enhancing the curriculum. Teachers have always been overworked and underpaid in my view, but with the increasing focus on standardized testing, we get feedback that there just isn’t a lot of time to do anything ‘extra’. Our outreach team aims to supplement standard schooling, stimulating curiosity and self‐learning with easy hands‐on experiments that capture the ‘wonder of optics’ – I know it sounds cheesy, but when you see a young student’s amazed face it doesn't get much better than that (unless they start asking questions about how the demo works)! The fact that we had eight universities for EDAY 2007 is a strong indicator that other groups realize how crucial it is to attract and retain the next generation of scientists.
 
Kruschwitz: In addition to helping local teachers and K‐12 students explore optics, you also serve as a mentor for members of the Women in Electrical Engineering group. Would you encourage other Ph.D. students to volunteer as mentors? Why?
 
Lee: Absolutely. Quite simply, you learn so much by trying to teach or advise someone else. I’ve mentored middle and high school students as well and it’s really rewarding and inspiring to see them overcome challenges and grow technically and personally.
 
Kruschwitz: Do you currently have a mentor? Tell me a little about how a mentor has been of assistance to you as you move forward both professionally and/or academically?
 
Lee: I have had many wonderful mentors at Stanford and through my internships. Good mentors will listen to you, give suggestions and point you to resources so you can discover and solve things on your own. When a mentor can act as not only a role model but also a friend who keeps your best interests in mind, you have a keeper!
 
Kruschwitz: I noticed from your bio you are interested in plasmonics. How do you see this technology transforming over the next few years? Will plasmons be the new frontier for data transmission?
 
Lee: We are at an exciting point now where advances in simulation and fabrication capabilities over the last decade have made it easier to design and test plasmonic structures. As a result, there is a huge interest in using plasmons for communications, storage, and sensing. A significant practical limitation of propagation loss will make plasmonics for data transmission challenging, but the ability to enhance and control light intensity at sub‐wavelength scales is very attractive for short interconnects and sensors.
 
As a side note, the ‘transformation’ of plasmonics is quite interesting; the first descriptions date back to 1902 with Wood’s description of anomalous diffraction from metallic gratings, but there has been an explosion of effort in metal optics and nanophotonics just recently. I borrowed Raether’s surface plasmons book from the Stanford library a while back and noticed the timestamps for previous due dates had a huge gap from the 1980s when the book was published until about 2000 (when the book started getting checked out every few weeks)!

Kruschwitz: Meredith, thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts and future aspirations with me. In closing, I’d love to hear any advice you may have for other aspiring female scientists and engineers.

Lee: It's important to aim for both variety and depth in your education. Building a professional network through groups like OSA can expose you to a wide spectrum of topics; once you've identified something that really interests you and are studying it in‐depth, though, it's just as important to keep your mind open! Keep going to events and keep asking questions – the smart solutions may very well emerge when you are connecting ideas from different areas. Commitment to society‐organized activities is often seen as optional, but getting involved can really help cultivate the (sometimes elusive) balance of technical breadth and depth.
 
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.