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26 September 2012

Gender bias? In photonics?

Yes, this excerpt from a study on gender bias in science is from this year, 2012:

“Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science."

The recent study from Yale University involving several institutions investigated gender bias on the part of faculty in biology, chemistry, and physics, and found that male and female faculty were just as likely to:
  • judge a female student to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than an identical male student
  • offer her a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring
  • appear to be affected by “enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence” that translate into biases in student evaluation and mentoring
  • and yet … report liking the female more than the male student.

“I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were -- that not only do the faculty express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results was really quite striking,” Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, and the senior author on the paper told The New York Times. Subtle gender bias is important to address, the study said, because “it could translate into large real-world disadvantages” such as not being hired, mentored, or promoted.

“Whenever I give a talk that mentions past findings of implicit gender bias in hiring, inevitably a scientist will say that can’t happen in our labs because we are trained to be objective. I had hoped that they were right,” Handelsman told the Times.

While the Yale study looked specifically at biology, chemistry, and physics, the bias behind the trend has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world of science.

One trackable metric is pay. In a survey by SPIE of photonics professionals earlier this year, median salaries for women trail those of men in every region, with the greatest gap in higher-income Asia, and the lowest in the Middle East.

A significant effort to overcome the bias was launched last year in the European Union. SPIE Fellows Zohra Ben Lakhdar and Jürgen Popp were among speakers at the inaugural European Gender Summit in Brussels, which signed a policy manifesto urging gender equality in European research programs. The 2012 summit will be held 29-30 November at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Stories of success from women in science
are featured in the Women in Optics planner.
There is much at stake, both in opportunities for women and, as European Commission Director General for Research and Innovation Robert-Jan Smits notes, "for the full realization of European innovation potential.” And it’s a timely issue for Europe, as policy makers at EU and national levels are deciding on the future of the European research and innovation landscape, and on the implementation details of the initiatives such as HORIZON 2020, European Research Area, and Innovation Union.

Looking for inspiration? Each year, stories of women finding success in optics and photonics are published by SPIE in a “Women in Optics” planner. When launched several years ago, the planner was intended to promote the work of women in the field. It has also become a tool for introducing girls and young women to the possibilities of careers in all sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with sound advice from successful women scientists all over the world.

Regarding the salary differences shown in the SPIE salary survey, Society Executive Director Eugene Arthurs said that the data point up the need for the industry to look more closely at pay equity. "It is disappointing that such a forward-looking and innovative sector mimics the historical injustice in this," he said. "We hope to see more women quickly realize the leadership positions in the field that their work and capabilities deserve."

18 September 2012

‘Golden Geese’ and essential technologies: optics and photonics!

Photonics enjoyed the spotlight in Washington, D.C., last week

First, on Wednesday morning leaders from the optics and photonics community give an enthusiastic launch to the new National Research Council report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation,” aided by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett.

Chu and Barrett were featured speakers at a briefing for agency leaders. Their remarks included references to several important benefits enabled by photonics:
  • economic strength
  • sustainable energy sources
  • new methods for medical detection and treatment of diseases and chronic conditions
  • more efficient lighting, computing, manufacturing, automobiles, and very much more.
Wednesday afternoon, the House R&D caucus heard from leaders of four societies in the sector about the report’s findings on economic impacts of optics and photonics, the importance of improved STEM education, and the committee’s recommendations on particular technology directions.

The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs; Milo Winter
"The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs,"
illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919.
Then, on Thursday, came the Golden Goose Awards.

If you’re familiar with European folklore, you’ll recall two stories related to gold and geese. In one, a goose lays eggs of gold that bring her owner wealth; in another, a goose with golden feathers helps secure a poor peasant lad the life of a happily married king.

But the name of these awards actually is related to a bit of 20th-century Americana.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, a U.S. Senator named William Proxmire instituted what he called the “Golden Fleece” awards to call out what he considered to be research projects of dubious value.

The problem with such judgments is that it isn’t necessarily clear what the ultimate value of research will be -- what looks dubious today may save lives tomorrow, in fact.

Enter the Golden Goose Awards. Initiated by U.S. Representative Jim Cooper and supported by several scientific and educational associations and institutes, the awards celebrated "researchers whose seemingly odd or obscure federally funded research turned out to have a significant impact on society," in the words of the organizers.

The winners of the first Golden Goose Awards are excellent examples -- and not surprisingly, optics and photonics were central to all three efforts:
  • Charles Townes ,a physicist whose work in the 1950s led to the invention of laser technology, which at the time had no known application and was even called “a solution in search of a problem,” but without which much of modern technology would be impossible. His work earned him a Nobel Prize in 1964, along with Russian researchers Aleksandr Prokhorov and Nicolay Basov.
  • Eugene White, Rodney White, Della Roy, and the late Jon Weber, whose study of tropical coral in the 1960s led serendipitously to the development of an ideal material for bone grafts and prosthetic eyes that is used commonly today.
  • Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien, and Osamu Shimomura, whose research, following Dr. Shimomura’s work on how certain jellyfish glow in the dark, led to numerous medical research advances and to methods used widely by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. They won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2008.
Also not surprising: The same agencies who funded research on the maser, green fluorescent protein, and coralline ceramics were among those with representatives in the room Wednesday  for the launch of the new NRC report.

As SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs noted at the caucus briefing, "Opportunity calls, and its name is 'photonics'."

Hear in their own words what two speakers had to say about the NRC report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation” in this brief video:


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05 September 2012

Photonics for fun and games -- and serious business!

A clear and present interest in using optical sciences and photonics to better our world shone through (no pun intended) at the Photonics for a Better World pavilion and other activities at SPIE Optics and Photonics last month in San Diego. Organizations are making dedicated efforts to improve the future of photonics, increase awareness in science education and improve the global community, and even to teach us how to have fun with photonics!

The other Olympics: Optics Outreach!

Nearly 220 people attended the Optics Outreach Olympics on Sunday 5 August. Teams from 16 Student Chapters from 9 different countries competed against each other by presenting their best optics outreach demonstrations that they use to teach children at schools about optics. The goal was to showcase effective, original educational activities that promote science education. In 2011, SPIE Student Members promoted science outreach to over 9,000 young students.

This year, the winning demonstrations included “The Magic of the Human Eye,” from the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon Student Chapter; “Light!” from the National Institute of Technology Tiruchirappalli; and “Laser Propagation Demonstration,” from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology.
A green glow captured the attention of judges and visitors at the Optics Outreach Olympics.


Essential Technologies

On the industry side, the heavily anticipated results of the National Academies Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation report were available at the Photonics for a Better World pavilion and discussed  with report co-chairs Alan Willner (Univ. of Southern California) and Paul McManamon (Univ. of Dayton and Exciting Technolgies) in the first post-release public briefing Wednesday afternoon during the event.

Key take-aways from the briefing are the need for everyone in the industry to promote science education -- do whatever you can to ensure that kids are interested and stay engaged in math and science and are aware of lucrative career opportunities in the future -- and to spread the word among policy makers, legislators, voters -- everyone -- about the importance and impact of optics and photonics technologies.

Fun with lasers ... and much more

At the Photonics for a Better World pavilion, photonics for betterment of the global community and STEM education (in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) were hot topics … and included a bit of fun with lasers!


● Several tables were set up for playing the Khet Laser Game 2.0, which combines the science of lasers with classic strategic games like chess. The objective is to use lasers and mirrors to illuminate your opponent’s pharaoh while shielding yours from harm!


At left, Michael Larson,  Professor and Vice Chancellor for Research at the
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and CEO of Innovention Toys
(makers of the Khet game), demonstrates the game at the Optics Outreach Olympics
with the help of Dirk Fabian of SPIE Student Services staff.


● With the new release of the National Academies report, STEM education has never been more important for the young minds in our global community. One effort to promote STEM education is LASER Classroom, which brings products, curriculum, and resources for teaching and learning about light, lasers, photonics and optics to kids in grades 9-12.

The program offers products called LASER BLOX, which contains magnets, apertures, range in wavelengths to vary colors, and even stack! Not only does LASER Classroom offer standalone products, they provide learning modules for use in the classroom which contain approximately 6-10 hours of teaching and learning material. LASER Classroom offers several other products that allow children to have fun while learning about optics and photonics.

Photonics Explorer demonstrates the efforts of STEM education and aims to equip science teachers in Europe’s secondary schools with up-to-date educational material that really engages, excites, and educates students about optics and photonics. And the best part: it’s totally free! Their strategy is to provide hands-on experiments with an inquiry- and exploratory-based framework in order to really engage students and provoke problem-solving skills.

The minds behind Photonics Explorer -- a group of teachers, scientists in pedagogy, and experts in photonics including sponsors such as SPIE Europe -- believe that the best place to raise interest and recruit future scientists that will solve our technical problems in the future is at schools.

● Also in the pavilion was another of today’s game-changers in the promotion of optics and photonics within the scientific community: InSPIRE, the Institution for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research, and Edu-training. This non-profit organization’s objective is to promote research, development, workforce training, and commercialization within the solar and renewable energy industry.

InSPIRE seeks to raise money through grant-seeking opportunities from the government and lay the foundation for a solar and renewable energy industry in Illinois that will have potential economic benefits. The organization plans to provide a platform upon which specialists and scientists can share knowledge and experience through networking and events.

They also plan to match job-seekers with potential employers, assist researchers attempting to gain financial support in their projects, and introduce innovators with companies that have the ability to commercialize their products. On every spectra of the solar and renewable energy industry, InSPIRE will surely have a large and lasting impact in the future of optics and photonics.