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#FacesofPhotonics: Optical Engineering & Medical Physics PhD Student, Madison Rilling

WOMEN-IN-STEM ADVOCATE: Madison Rilling shares her knowledge
Meet Canada-native and this week's SPIE Faces of Photonics feature, Madison Rilling. Madison is pursuing a PhD in Physics at Université Laval, in the Center for Optics, Photonics, and Lasers. She is also a part of the Université Laval’s Cancer Research Center. Both are located in Québec City, Canada.

Madison is enthusiastic about science policy: "I am making my first steps in the world of science policy. I am -- or I try to be -- a strong advocate for next-generation scientists and women and girls in STEM."

When she isn't in the lab, you’ll probably find Madison running, hiking, playing volleyball, or "...enjoying a good book in one hand and a tea in the other."

STEP IT UP: Rilling's favorite hike, Garibaldi Lake in BC, Canada

Enjoy the interview!


1. How did you become interested in the optics and photonics field?

I did more of a theoretical undergraduate in math & physics at McGill University. My very first research internship was in optical engineering and this experience made me realize just how large the scope of research in optics and photonics could be. It also sparked my interest in doing my graduate studies in something more applied. I first pursued an accredited Master’s in medical physics, giving me the training to work as a clinical medical physicist in a radiation oncology treatment center. Now, my PhD combines optical engineering and medical physics!

IN THE CLUB: The Center for Optics, Photonics, and Lasers weekly 
running club. They have braved summer highs of +30°C and winter lows of -20°C!

2. Explain your current research. How does your work impact society?

My PhD thesis is about developing a clinical 3D scintillation-based dosimetry system for more efficient and accurate quality assurance of external beam radiotherapy treatments -- a fancy way of saying that I try to find the 3D shape of fluorescent light emitted within translucent materials.
The essence of my PhD research, which is mid-way between the lab and the clinic, is basically about using optical engineering techniques to solve problems in radiation oncology: I design and optimize optical-based systems while accounting for clinical constraints. Though I may not be working towards a cure for cancer, I do believe that I am making an important contribution in improving its treatment, and this gives added motivation and meaning to the work I do.


3. What's been your most inspiring new effort to date?

During my PhD, I explored beyond academia and got my feet wet in the world of science policy. Science policy is a two-way street between governments and science advocates, but I’ve been mainly on the policy for science side of the track. This all started in 2016 when I became a student adviser to Québec’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Rémi Quirion, who advises our provincial government on science and innovation-based issues.

BON ANNIVERSAIRE: Rilling , Dr. Brenda Milner (often considered the founder of neuropsychology), and Quirion after an interview celebrating Milner's 100th birthday!

This experience has introduced me to the many political, social, economic, and academic spheres of the research ecosystem and its stakeholders. My role as student adviser has often felt like “playing in the big leagues,” putting me in situations where I was the only student sitting at the table. It may have been intimidating at times, but it really has been an incredible and impactful experience being able to advocate for the next generation of scientists and for better funding of their research.

BATTING A THOUSAND: Rilling and a colleague 
attend the Canadian Science Policy 
Conference in Ottawa, Canada
On a personal note, it has also been a great networking opportunity in the governmental and political worlds. Just last March, I got to eat lunch with the Queen of Belgium – who knew doing a PhD in physics would lead to that?!


4. Share the story of your favorite outreach or volunteer experience.

I have two – I can’t decide!

For UNESCO’s very first International Day of Light, our student chapter collaborated with students in architecture to design and build a large scale, standalone interactive platform called La Terrasse Optique (“The Optical Terrace”). I was one of three project coordinators working with an amazing team of students who made the project come to life. This experience completely took us out of the comfort of our labs, but was totally worth it in the end. Check out the article in SPIE Professional about our outreach project, and stay tuned for a new and improved Optical Terrace in time for IDL 2019!


Each year, our chapter hosts optics workshops with high-school girls during a provincial-wide activity called Les Filles et les Sciences (“Girls and Science”), and this is really my favorite volunteering activity. Through my science policy experience, I’ve contributed to developing evidence-based government policies for gender equity in STEM. But, honestly, the time I feel like I’m really making a difference is when I get to witness the girls laughing and having fun, just by doing science!


5. What do you want to say to people in the STEM community?

STEMinists IN ACTION: One of the workshop groups during  
Les Filles et les Sciences 2017
There are so many ways in which you can contribute to and have an impact on science, whether it be through your research, outreach, volunteering activities, science policy, science advocacy, science communication, or something else. Use your strengths and skills where you can have the most impact.

Be a spokesperson for science and talk about your science in your community! Let your family and friends know about the awesome research or work you’re doing in optics and photonics. We need citizens to value scientific expertise and evidence, and to reach that goal we have to involve them and build more bridges between science and society.

To the next generation: we need scientists everywherein all types of research, in academia, in industry, in government, in public policy, in nonprofit organizations. Don’t underestimate yourself: You have an incredibly wide and diverse set of skills.  Keep your eyes open for opportunities -- if you look for them, you’ll find them!

Science needs everyone. Until we reach gender equity in STEM, we’ll be missing out on excellent research and excellent science. We, as the STEM community, need to understand the existing social and structural barriers and we need to take concrete actions to overcome them. (Side note: SPIE has been very proactive in this area – check out their ‘Women in Optics’ activity grants!)

Finally, finding a balance is very important. Take time to do the things you love, and spend time with the people who are important to you. “Do what you love, love what you do”  -- simple enough, right?


DO WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO: Rilling in her natural habitat


SPIE’s #FacesofPhotonics social media campaign connects SPIE members in the global optics, photonics, and STEM communities. It serves to highlight similarities, celebrate differences, and foster a space where conversation and community can thrive.

Follow along with past and present stories on SPIE social media channels:







Or search #FacesofPhotonics on your favorite social network!

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