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FiO: Notes from the Crucible

Photonics.com
Oct 2009
SAN JOSE, Calif., Oct. 15, 2009 – ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ I thought. ‘Whoa.’ I had just stumbled across a page on the Frontiers in Optics website collecting blog postings about the (then) upcoming meeting. ‘We can’t have people just running around writing stuff for the internet. About science, no less.’

A moment of relative disquiet followed. I eventually composed myself, though, and after checking to see that I still had a job, looked more closely at the page in question.

And looked. I found myself poring through the postings – especially those by Adam Zysk, a senior research associate at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and Bob Schoonover, an electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Not just because they were entertaining and well-written – and they were – but because they told a story that ran counter to traditional narratives about the life of a scientist.

Traditional narratives are all about solitude and rigidity, with a gray-bearded man hunched over a microscope, for example – alone, except perhaps for a deferential lab assistant standing quietly at ready – slowly, methodically observing and testing.

The real world, of course, is nothing like this. In a post titled “Crunch Time,” Zysk does a nice job of describing the final weeks before giving a presentation, with “the last minute data-taking, the crunching of numbers, the practice talks, and the polishing of PowerPoint slides.” In the real world, research is fluid and frenetic, and fraught with potential pitfalls.

I’ve always been fascinated by how science is actually done. Obviously, it is a far more dynamic process than TV and movies would have us believe. Someday I will write that book. Today, though, I am interested in another aspect of the research experience: the academic meeting itself.

Zysk and Schoonover both discuss the many varieties of social interactions at academic meetings. There’s beer and tacos with old friends, chance encounters with still-menacing thesis advisors, unparalleled opportunities to meet Nobel Laureates.

In a post titled “Academics,” Zysk offers some sound advice about this particular meeting: “You're almost guaranteed to bump into an interesting person just by chance. Maybe it'll be the guy standing next to you at an exhibit or the woman that just asked an insightful question after a presentation. Whomever it is, be sure to ditch a talk or two later in the day and grab a drink with them.”

You might find someone with shared academic interests. You might find a new friend. You might just find an investigator with whom you want to work.

Research depends in no small part on collaboration. And collaborations rise and fall on the strength of personal relationships – relationships often forged in the crucible of academic meetings. So when a colleague shouts from across the room that he and some others are going to grab a beer, follow along. You never know where it might lead.

Gary Boas
gboas@eggship-media.com


GLOSSARY
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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