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30 November 2015

Improve and carry on, use the fear: advice from women in STEM

SPIE Women in Optics 18-month
planner for 2016-2017.
Interest in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) can lead to a wide variety of careers. A few examples:
  • exploring photonic nanostructures that can improve the efficiency of solar energy generation
  • observing micro-organisms in the Arctic ice to learn more about lifeforms of all sorts
  • developing optical systems for noninvasive diagnosis of tumors inside the body
  • assessing the radiation hazard to be incurred by humans travelling to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
The paths to all careers include some challenges. For anyone looking at a career in STEM, the latest edition of a free annual publication offering insights on those paths has just been released.

The 12th edition of the Women in Optics Planner published by SPIE contains more insights from more than 30 women discussing their interests and occupations and offering advice. Among their stories:

Viera-Gonzalez
Perla Marlene Viera-Gonzalez, a PhD student at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, specializes in optical design applied to solar illumination systems.

Her biggest career obstacle is “swimming upstream and (meeting) resistance to change. I sometimes encounter people who prefer to always do things the same way. The solution? I never give up. Believe in yourself. Try new ideas, and if you fail, learn from that. Improve and carry on.”

Viera-Gonzalez shares her inspiration and passion with her community, organizing STEM conferences for students, workshops for kids, basic education for teachers, science fairs, and other events, with support from SPIE and her university.

Mikkelsen
Maiken Mikkelsen, now an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of physics at Duke University, grew up in Denmark and  found physics to be her favorite subject in school.

Now she leads a research group exploring the behavior of novel nanoscale structures and materials by studying their interaction with laser light, which may lay the foundation for future quantum- or nano-based technologies. Her advice? “Follow your heart and do what you love!”

Lukishova
Svetlana Lukishova earned degrees through her PhD at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and is now a senior scientist at the University of Rochester leading a group in quantum nanophotonics.

As an undergrad, she followed the advice of a professor to select the strongest research group with an outstanding leader and ended up carrying out her master’s and PhD research under  Nobel Laureate Alexander Prokhorov.

As a working professional, she says, her biggest obstacle is that she is “too modest. In a competitive environment, it is necessary to defend your rights.” She advises young girls “to set the highest goals in your life and your scientific and engineering career; work hard, but with inspiration; and don’t forget that you are women.”

James Asirvatham
"Dream first, try next, and do your best," Juanita Saroj James Asirvatham, research associate at Lancaster University, advises young women who wish to pursue a career in optics and photonics.  

As a research associate at Lancaster University, Asirvatham explores novel photonic nanostructures to improve the efficiency and economy of solar energy production. "STEM is for creative thinkers," she says. "Choosing a career in STEM will provide lifelong professional development.”

Greenwood
Born in Germany and educated in Scotland, Bernadette Greenwood, the director of clinical services at Desert Medical Imaging, advises young women in STEM fields to overcome barriers to success by applying logic, sensibility, and patience to any situation.

"Sometimes it's impossible not to feel discouraged, but stay strong and believe in yourself. Use fear as fuel for action," she says.

Greenwood oversees an MRI-based prostate cancer clinical trial, delivering laser interstitial thermal therapy to prostate cancer using thermal mapping with MRI.

Wang
For Hui (Catherine) Wang, deputy director of the Department of International Cooperation at the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics, and Physics, the biggest challenge is not having a scientific background. She holds a master’s degree in English literature. Wang works at continually increasing her knowledge through reading books and journals, having discussions with colleagues, and attending academic conferences.

Do not to be afraid of difficulties and mistakes, Wang advises. "Facing these can make you stronger."

All the stories are available online; copies of the planner are free for the asking via the same link.

Thanks to all for the inspiration!

17 November 2015

Six dramatic advances in solar energy

Harvesting, collecting, and deriving usable energy from the Sun and other sustainable sources for people around our planet has made important leaps forward of late. Whether it is summer or winter in your part of the world, that’s excellent news for our future energy needs.

The dual nature of light, recently demonstrated
in an image from the Carbone group at École
Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and featured
as Figure 1 in a review paper in the Journal of Photonics
for Energy
: "Energy-space photography of light
confined on a nanowire simultaneously shows both
spatial interference and energy quantization."
doi:10.1117/1.JPE.5.050997
An open-access article in the Journal of Photonics for Energy co-authored by nine international experts* details some of those advances. Here’s a short list from their review of the state of the art, titled "The role of photonics in energy."

1. Making cheaper and more efficient solar cells

Today’s solar cells are based on inorganic semiconductors -– particularly silicon, the second most abundant material in the Earth’s crust. However, silicon solar cells, although relatively expensive to manufacture, are not the most efficient at converting solar energy into electrical energy.

Solar cells based on other semiconductors are more efficient at conversion but also cost more to make.

A new generation of solar cells in development promises the advantages of low-cost materials, high-throughput manufacturing methods, and low-energy expenditure. These very new emerging cells are still less efficient than more established inorganic solar cells, but they have been improved dramatically over the last few years. Particularly promising are technologies using organic-inorganic hybrid materials such as perovskites.

2. Limiting lost light

Researchers are also working on methods of trapping light within a solar cell more effectively, to limit the amount of energy lost due to reflection off the silicon crystals or layers of protective glass. Existing antireflective coatings have performance limitations, often minimizing the reflection for only a select region of the solar spectrum, and are also dependent on the angle of incidence.

One possible solution is adding nanostructured surfaces (e.g., micro- or nanopillars or nanowires) to minimize reflection.

3. Directing and driving

An alternative to converting sunlight into electricity is harvesting the thermal energy of sunlight directly. Sunlight can be focused onto long pipes coated with an optically absorbing material and filled with a high-thermal-capacity fluid, which is used to drive a turbine. Coatings such as carbon-nanotube and metallic-nanowire arrays with high absorption capabilities are helping toward the goal of creating nearly perfect absorbers.

4. Storing it for later

Research is also being done on storing solar fuels as an energy source, via water-splitting, a process which occurs naturally during photosynthesis. Splitting separates water into its oxygen and hydrogen elements, and can be induced in a photochemical reaction. The induced process of sunlight-driven water splitting is as yet not efficient. But with that solved, the hydrogen produced could be stored in fuel cells and later used for local electricity generation, for example as a transportation fuel for electric vehicles.

5. Following the Sun

Optical and photonic sensors are widely used to make existing technologies that harvest energy and produce power more effective. Tracking systems adjust the positioning of solar collectors to ensure a continued optimum angle relative to the Sun (perpendicular to solar radiation). Sun trackers have the potential to increase the energy collected by solar energy systems by 10% to 100%, depending on factors including the time of the year and geographical position.

6. … or the wind

Wind farms utilize light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, which determines wind speed by measuring the Doppler shift of light backscattered by aerosols in the atmosphere. The accurate measurements of wind speeds and turbulence make it possible to more effectively survey potential wind farm sites, optimize their design, and make dynamic adjustments to their operation.

Want to know more? Read the two-part synopsis of the review article in the SPIE Newsroom:



*The paper is authored by Zakya Kafafi, the journal’s editor-in-chief, and Nelson Tansu of Lehigh University; Raúl Martín-Palma of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; Ana Nogueira of the University of Campinas; Deirdre O’Carroll of Rutgers University; Jeremy Pietron of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory; Ifor Samuel of the University of St Andrews; Franky So of North Carolina State University; and Loucas Tsakalakos of General Electric–Global Research Center.

04 November 2015

Speaking out about climate change is urgent in our ‘crucial century’

The approach of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in early December has global leaders from every sector thinking about technology opportunities to help meet greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction goals in an effort to mitigate climate change.

Photonics at work: A schematic illustration of
electromagnetic characterization and detection of
pollutants on a sea surface, in an SPIE Newsroom
article by researchers at Lab-STICC, CNRS, ENSTA Bretagne.
Photonics technologies play an important part in enabling and driving applications that support sustainable development and the green economy. Researchers, engineers, and developers in the optics and photonic community are continually finding new ways to enhance our lives with these technologies.

But there is another sort of opportunity for the photonics community to take up: speaking out about the urgency to take action, particularly in the face of climate-change skepticism or denial.

UK Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees is among scientists who are doing so. Framing the issue in a recent commentary in the Financial Times, he characterized this century as the first in the Earth’s 45-million-year history when “one species -- ours -- can determine the fate of the entire biosphere.”

While there may be some uncertainties in climate science, Rees said, it is certain that future generations will be affected by existing public policies and others implemented in our lifetimes.

Anyone who cares about those generations -- the grandchildren of today’s young children and others living in the next century and beyond -- “will deem it worth making an investment now to protect them from worst-case scenarios,” Rees said.

Given that, he said, the conversation needs to be based on “the best knowledge that the 21st century has to offer.”

Today’s knowledge includes work toward photonics-driven prospects such as:


Policy makers and non-scientists are supporting efforts to grow our knowledge even further, and working to strengthen the investment for future generations.

Governmental agencies and university departments collaborate in competitions such as the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Teams design, build, and operate houses powered by solar energy, and that are affordable, energy efficient, attractive, and easy to live in. Congratulations to this year’s winner, Stevens Institute of Technology!

Citizen scientists get involved through activities such as the recent iSPEX-EU project. Using an add-on optical sensor with their smartphones, people across Europe measured and reported on aerosols during a 45-day period. The crowd-sourced approach provided information at times and locations not covered by current air pollution monitoring efforts.

As the world gears up for the climate conference in Paris next month, it will be wise to consider, as Rees has said, that “Whatever happens in this uniquely crucial century will resonate into the remote future and perhaps far beyond the Earth.”