Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Sapna Shroff

By Gale Mamatova

Ricoh Innovations, Inc
OSA Member since: 2005

Mamatova: Sapna, thank you very much for agreeing to be panel moderator for our 2011 MWOSA tea. You did an amazing job!!! You were also an official blogger at 2011 FiO. Can you tell us little bit about your experiences that the OSA conference and the MWOSA event?

Shroff: It was really great to blog through the COSI (Computational Optics Sensing and Imaging) and FiO (Frontiers in Optics) in 2011. Attending both the conferences was great, with lots of people and a lot of energy! Most conference attendees visited the website for my blog. So when they met me at the conference it served as a great starting point to stimulate a discussion on interesting topics. I also learnt what people find helpful and interesting. Conferences like FiO are fairly advanced in their technical level. I realized that the younger people seem to have liked the fact that I had covered a bit of background on every technical topic in my posts, especially for topics outside their immediate area of research. FiO is also a very large conference and covers many topics at the very forefront of their field. So it is difficult for most people to attend all the talks they would like to see and meet everyone they would like to meet. So some people seemed to find it useful to read my interpretation of some of the interesting talks I attended at the conference.

Moderating the MWOSA tea was great fun! The panelists were some of the most accomplished women in optics today, and I got to ask them some of the most relevant questions for women working in optics. They gave us great advice, some serious, some humorous, but all of them very insightful. They also offered to guide and mentor us through our careers in optics. The event just seamlessly united women in optics and assured us all that we have support when we need it. The best part of both the blogging and moderating I think is the aspect of connection. They got me in touch with a lot of people I didn't know before! I felt they helped me be more connected and involved in the optics community!

Mamatova: What are some difficulties or challenges for a woman in science and engineering?

Shroff: The challenges of being a woman in science and engineering are no different from those faced by a minority in any field. However, based on my experience, in the optics community, we reward merit above all and people from all backgrounds can contribute constructively. Science and engineering in general need more students and professionals if we want to continue to innovate the way we have over the past decades. We should focus our efforts on generating interest in our fields early in a student's career and provide them with the resources and guidance they need to be successful, independent of their backgrounds.

Mamatova: What event in your childhood has had the most impact on the way you now look at the world?

Shroff: My view of the world is one which continues to evolve with experiences every day. I cannot point to a single event from childhood, but, I learned a lot from my parents; whether it was from being grounded for stretching rules or being encouraged to excel in academic and fun pursuits. Outside my family, growing up in India of the 90s was exciting. The optimism and opportunities that my generation has been afforded are truly unparalleled. With the advent of the internet, the scope of our thoughts has become truly global. The desire and drive to create innovations that positively impact as many people as possible across the world is as strong as it can ever be.

Mamatova: Of all the opportunities out there, why did you choose to pursue scientific research in imaging?

Shroff: My father is an engineer and growing up I saw the immense joy it brought him day after day, designing and building things. I was in awe of the fact that he always had answers to all my questions, no matter what the topic. My father had always been my role model and I wanted to be like him when I grew up!

As I went through school, I was always more inclined towards the sciences and applied disciplines. When it came time to pick a major in college, it was a no-brainer for me to go for engineering. During undergraduate studies, digital signal processing was definitely my favorite course. When I came to the University of Rochester for graduate studies I met Professor Jim Fienup. When I heard about his work in phase retrieval and image reconstruction, I immediately wanted to be a part of it! He soon introduced me to Professor David Williams who pioneered the use of adaptive optics in ophthalmoscopy. Together they offered me the opportunity to work with them on a collaborative project on superresolution imaging. It was the best of both worlds and I had a spectacular time!

I continue to build on what I have learnt at the University of Rochester in my current work at Ricoh Innovations Inc. The prospect of conceiving a completely new idea, applying our research skills to build it from ground up, and driving the technology all the way to real tangible products is what motivates me every day!

Mamatova: During undergraduate studies you were actively engaged in some exciting professional development activities. Can you tell us a little about that and how it shaped your interest in science and engineering?

Shroff: Indeed, I was very actively involved in the IEEE Student Chapter of my college. This was a student managed organization and all my friends were its members. In the very first week of college, students from second and third year, introduced the chapter to us. While the chapter's primary mandate was to promote learning and development of students in engineering, the activities went well beyond purely academic endeavors. In addition to participating in technical contests, the chapter offered opportunities for students to participate in "business" activities, e.g. raising sponsorships for chapter activities, leading organization of conferences and meetings etc.

I was a member of the Sponsorship Committee for "360 degrees," the combined annual festival of 6 chapters. I had to lead outreach to local and corporate sponsors and convince them to sponsor our event. This was an experience unlike any I had before. I had to present our value proposition, negotiate the deal and finally "make a sale!" It had to be the most non-engineering professional experience I would have imagined from an engineering society!

In my third year of Engineering, we decided to create a chapter of the Communications Society and I was nominated as the founding Chairperson. This was a truly rewarding experience as it gave me the opportunity to take on a leadership position and develop a platform to promote the development of future students interested in communication and signal processing. We invited multiple guest speakers and conducted field visits to local companies including a television broadcasting station.

To-date some of my best friends are the ones I worked with in the student chapter. It changed my perspective of engineering from work-time to fun-time!

Mamatova: You are actively involved with OSA in many programs. What drives you to continue to contribute and volunteer?

Shroff: Over the years I have benefited a lot from OSA activities, whether it is participating in local chapter events, OSA conferences or publishing in OSA journals. The society brings together everyone in optics on one platform. It encourages collaboration, exchange of ideas and merit based peer evaluation, supports education and research, and voices our merits and needs to the world. I don't think it is possible to nurture any technology without an organized support system such as provided by professional societies like OSA.

Volunteering for OSA is just one small way for me to give back to the optics community. Every community needs good volunteers. It is their work which can make or break the impact of the community as a whole. Educational outreach, reviewing technical publications, serving on technical or organizational committees, these are just some ways of giving back with our time and service. And spending that time and effort makes me happy.

Mamatova: Who are the people that have mentored you over your professional career? How has this helped you shape yourself as a person and a scientist?

Shroff: All my life, I have benefited from guidance and coaching provided by several people. For me, a mentor doesn't have to be a person who knows everything and gives solutions for all of my problems, but rather, someone who sets an example by doing things that I may not know to do myself. Over the years, I have had many mentors for different aspects of work and life.

In school and undergrad I looked up to my dad and older brother. They went through similar life experiences and I always knew I could follow their example and go to them for advice when in need. During grad school I was most influenced by my thesis advisors and labmates and tried my best to measure up to the standards set by them. I relied on them to be my mentors in all professional and scientific matters.

In my current workplace I now have mentors who make critical decisions, have the drive to start a new project from scratch, meet stretch goals and be thorough professionals!

My mentors are all around me, helping and guiding me by their example every day!

Mamatova: What do you like to do outside your professional pursuits?

Shroff: When I am not working I like reading. I am eagerly waiting for the day when all the books ever written are available online! I also love to run. Even a short run in the morning gives me energy and channels my focus for the rest of the day. In addition, I enjoy cooking. Checking out and bookmarking unusual recipes, looking up and buying new vegetables we have never eaten before, chopping, sauteing, seasoning and putting it all together is the most fun and creative family time at our home!

Mamatova: What should the Society focus on during the next decade? Is this a good time to be working in/studying optics?

Shroff: There has never been a better time to be in optics. Technology is revolutionizing the world every day. Sensors are connecting everything and everyone in an infinite network. The future of human-computer-interaction holds unbounded potential. 3D displays and image capture are transforming the way we see the world. With the globalization of the world we are seeing medical and infrastructural progress reach remote areas of the planet. Humans are living longer and fuller lives and there is ever greater need for early medical diagnostics. With environmental concerns there is need for low power, energy saving, sustainable endeavors. There is unlimited potential for optics in all of these fields and I am sure the Society will focus on technical areas like these and more.

But most of all I think we should focus on our people. The contributions of the optics community, our collaboration, energy and innovation are the main reason we are where we are today. The OSA has already contributed much to the professional development of students and researchers. In future, I hope the society maintains it focus on its members and their development, outreach programs to expand and improve the quality of education, support and encouragement for research initiatives and last but not least, giving a global voice to optics research. These are some of the things that will surely help us channel our best talent and innovation through the next decade.