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#FacesofPhotonics: Opto-mechanical Designer Deven Patel

DYNAMIC FORCE: Patel enjoys a rainy day at the Gufufoss
waterfall in Iceland
Salut! Meet Deven Patel, a graduate student at Université Laval's Center for Optics, Photonics, and Lasers (COPL) in Quebec City who is also working as an opto-mechanical designer at Esterline Technologies Corporation.

Over the past two years, Patel was instrumental in Laval’s exoplanet-imaging project HiCIBaS, or High-Contrast Imaging Balloon System. He had two main jobs: designing a dynamic structure for the star-pointing system and front-end optics (telescope, etc.), and developing a passive-cooling thermal system for the back-end optics system. "Basically, I developed the mechanical solutions that were necessary for the other systems to function correctly and to perform the science of the mission," he explains.

I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW: HiCIBaS' telescope. Credit: Cédric Vallée

The HiCIBaS project received quite a bit of media attention, and for good reason: "The project is beneficial for Canadian astronomy and instrumentation,” says Patel. “It’s a platform that can be used to conduct exoplanet-imaging missions in space-like conditions, and has numerous benefits – being able to retrieve the payload, perform maintenance on it, and fly it again. It can also be used as a platform for testing instruments that are being developed for space missions, increasing the confidence level in their performance and functionality. Projects like this are necessary to improve Canada’s potential in the space and astronomy sectors."

DREAM TEAM: Part of the HiCIBaS team in front of the scientific gondola. L to R: Patel, Simon Carrier, Cédric Vallée, Olivier Côté, Mireille Ouellet, and Chris De Jonge. Credit: Cédric Vallée

HiCIBaS was not the only challenge Patel faced at Laval. Growing up in an English-speaking environment in Montreal, he had to quickly learn to communicate with his French-speaking colleagues and classmates: when he started his Master’s at Laval in 2016, it had been four years since he’d taken a French class. "For the better part of 2017,” he says, “I was Google-translating phrases. Eventually, in 2018, I began to think in French naturally instead of translating the thoughts in my head, and that's when I really became able to communicate effectively. It was a long process, only possible thanks to the patience of my friends and colleagues."

Enjoy SPIE's Faces of Photonics interview with Deven!


1. How did you become interested in the optics and photonics field? Was there a particular person who inspired you?

SPACE MAN: Visiting the David Dunlap Observatory 
in Ontario
I grew fascinated with optics and photonics in college, while watching a documentary on NASA's Juno spacecraft and its optical instruments (I love all things space, by the way!). Until that documentary, I didn't know how deeply rooted optics and photonics were in space missions and how imperative they are to perform the science behind those missions. And it's only since arriving at the COPL that I've gotten to learn how much impact this field has had on just about every other STEM field, as well as multiple technologies in our everyday lives.


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

A few years ago, I was a member of Space Concordia, a student-run association at Concordia University that worked on space-related projects. A lot of our projects were on display, and we had dedicated workbenches, computer setups lining the walls, and great people working in the lab space. I got to talk to college students and see them get excited about our lab space and about the projects that my colleagues and I were working on.

ONE STEP BEYOND: Patel hikes to the Delicate Arch at 
Arches National Park in Utah
But my favorite "outreach" experience is an ongoing one with my niece. She has two important traits that every young scientist should have: she's curious and she's relentless. Every now and then, she will ask me a question that's been puzzling her, and I love answering. And, when I can't because she asks some tough questions  I love going through the process of researching the answers and learning with her.

Just a few months ago, she asked me a question I was very happy to hear: “Why do stars twinkle?”

This hit home for me because that question, along with many others, is the reason I developed a love for learning and understanding how science plays a role in our lives every day. I was several years older than she is now when I thought to ask myself that question; I'm anxious to hear what other questions may come my way next. I hope her curiosity stays with her, and that I have made just a bit of impact on her desire to find her place in the STEM world.


3. Describe a memorable moment you had while working on the HiCIBaS project. 

I developed a thermal solution to manage the heat coming from our instruments. Part of my role in the project was to maintain a number of electronics and cameras under certain temperature limits, mostly to ensure that they continue functioning, but also for performance. I was looking at a number of ways to do this reliably: commercial thermal straps, two-phase heat pipe loops, and fluid circulation pipes. In the end, every solution was too costly, too risky, or required a lot of time, which is something we didn't have at that stage of the project.

Instead, I developed a custom solution that was a mock version of the commercial thermal straps. A standard commercial thermal strap is usually composed of copper braids that have terminal blocks made of copper on each end. So, with the limited resources I had, I developed a similar design out of copper shim stock, which was readily available. Fortunately, the development process went fairly smoothly and the solution ended up working very well. It was far from an ideal design, and I thought of many ways improve the design after-the-fact, but it did what I needed it to do  at a fraction of the cost that we might have spent, and that's what's important.

I find it really satisfying when I'm in a pinch and I can throw something together like that and make it work!

UP, UP, AND AWAY!: Presenting the HiCIBaS Project at the Montreal Space Symposium in 2018

4. Have you ever had to embrace failure? Describe a challenging situation, either personal or professional, and how you overcame it. 

Always! Failure has been a huge part of my professional and personal life. I've been messing up for longer than I can remember. Some of the most challenging times I've failed, though, are from my early teenage years when I was training in mixed martial arts (MMA).

Being a one-on-one sport, there's no excuses for losing aside from the fact that you just weren't good enough. In every scenario, the blame comes back to you, and there is no running from that  you are forced to hold yourself accountable for your mistakes. What you can do, though, is work on the holes in your game and get better so that next time you are a lot faster at reacting to those punches or submission attempts, and you can defend yourself more effectively.

In the MMA world, these are lessons you learn the hard way - by messing up many, many times until you get it right. In that regard, I consider MMA amazing for developing fundamental life skills: recognizing your weaknesses, developing the discipline and drive to be better, and, of course, dealing with failure.

OUTER SPACE: At Mt. Búlandstindur in East Iceland

5. When you look five years into the future, what do you hope to have accomplished?

In five years, I hope to have become a much more well-rounded engineer and be leading a Mechanical Systems Design team for a space- and optics-related project. I also hope to have traveled more of the world, learned how to speak Japanese on a conversational level, obtained my private piloting license, finally gotten the hang of playing guitar or piano, and to have eaten a lot of good sushi.


6. What book has impacted your professional life the most? Your personal life? Why?

Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. This book isn't just for space-lovers with the dream of becoming an astronaut, it's for anyone who is chasing their goals in life, big or small. Chris outlines his life philosophies and experiences and how they've helped him in his professional and personal life; the book is an invaluable insight into the mind of an astronaut and, more importantly, an incredible person.

ROCKING HIS WORLD: Patel smiles from the natural basalt rock columns at 
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in South Iceland

7. What are you most excited to see in the future development of photonics?

Optical biosensors! Once they are more developed, they have the potential to revolutionize the healthcare industry and be not just a life-changing technology, but a world-changing technology. That technology will change the way modern medicine is practiced as well as dramatically increasing worldwide accessibility to medicine. That's one thing I love about photonics, in general  the ability for the field to completely revolutionize another industry over and over again.

LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT: Patel participates in his sister's wedding ceremony in Montreal

8. What is your advice to others in the STEM community?

Stay curious and love the process of learning. STEM is all about learning and applying what you learn, but every field is constantly evolving and you must evolve with it. Love the process and don’t stop learning!

Get out of your comfort zone. It is easy to continue doing what you know and what you are good at, but you may find new passions and new ways to apply your work in other fields. Don't restrict yourself! There is a lot to be learned in all facets of the STEM community and you'd be surprised how your work and interests can impact another discipline, and maybe spark a new interest in the process.

Don’t sideline your personal life for your professional life. We all have other interests and hobbies  pursue them! We all have people important to us, friends and family  hang out and laugh with them! Finding the balance will keep you refreshed and give you the stamina to live both aspects of your life to their fullest potential.

CLIMBING OUT OF HIS COMFORT ZONE: Patel explores the magma 
chamber of Thrihnukagigur volcano near Reykjavik, Iceland


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.

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