Editorial Feature

Int. Women's Day Spotlight: Inspirational Figures in the Photonics Industry

International Women's Day is a World Day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women globally. This year's theme, 'Embracing Equity', strives to highlight equal opportunities for women in all sectors, while the UN's focus on 'DigitALL' looks at innovation and technology for gender equality. 

To celebrate International Women's Day this year on AZoOptics across both themes, we spoke with three leading researchers about their work in the domain of optics and photonics and their advice for women starting out in their field. 

Dr. Prabodhi Nanayakkara

Dr. Prabodhi Nanayakkara recently completed her Ph.D. in Electronic Engineering from the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), University of Surrey. She is passionate about engaging in teaching activities within the University. That is why she has joined the Physics Department of the University of Surrey as a Teaching Assistant while reading toward the Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA).

Dr. Nanayakkara also works as a consultant for Silveray Ltd, a spin-out company from the University of Surrey which aims to commercialize the detector technology she developed during her Ph.D.

"I feel really privileged to assist in the process of commercializing the detector technology I developed to be used in radiotherapy treatment applications in the future."

Prof. Laura M. Lechuga

Prof. Laura M. Lechuga is a Full Professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Head of the Nanobiosensors and Bioanalytical Applications Group at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) in Barcelona (Spain). She is an Associate Editor of Analytical Chemistry (ACS) and has been Associate Editor in three chemistry, physics, and engineering Journals. She belongs to the Scientific Advisory Board of several high-level international research Centres and has participated in numerous high-level evaluation panels worldwide. 

She led a large research group oriented to applied science and technological developments in the field of photonic nano biosensors based on nanoplasmonics and silicon-based photonics principles for point-of-care diagnostics.

"I would like to highlight that nearly 75% of my Group are women as I firmly support female talent."

Dr. Alice Iles

Having just completed her Ph.D., Dr. Alice Iles started a position as Tech Acceleration manager at Future Worlds, a Startup Accelerator, helping the next generation of technology specialists become startup founders and change the world with their ideas.

_________________

Please could you introduce yourself and your main research focus?

Dr. Prabodhi Nanayakkara

I am Prabodhi Nanayakkara. I recently completed my Ph.D. in Electronic Engineering from the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), University of Surrey. My research focuses on developing novel X-ray detectors using organic inorganic semiconductors for medical and industrial applications. Through device engineering and careful modification of semiconductor structure, I was able to develop a high-performance X-ray detector that not only outperforms commercial devices but also leads to more accurate cancer radiotherapy treatment.

These detectors display many promising characteristics such as industry-standard low dark current, high sensitivity, and fast response times and are also available at a low cost. At the moment, I am in the process of developing new materials systems through which we can optimize the detector performance even further. I already have some exciting results, and I am hopeful that it’ll be an interesting topic of discussion very soon.

Prof. Laura M. Lechuga

I am a Full Professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Head of the Nanobiosensors and Bioanalytical Applications Group at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) in Barcelona.

The main focus of my research is the development of novel Nanobiosensor devices based on Nanoplasmonics and Silicon-based photonics principles, including surface biofunctionalization, and complete engineering for point-of-care devices. The application of our technology in real clinical diagnostics and environmental control is one of my main objectives.

Dr. Alice Iles

My name is Dr. Alice Iles. I originally did my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science, and my research project was based on the action of Tuberculosis (TB) in the body. This led me into my Ph.D. at the Optoelectronics Research Center in Southampton. My Ph.D. was focused on developing a point-of-care triage test for TB infection in the community. Whilst working on this project I also looked into developing point-of-care testing solutions for pneumonia, covid-19, and dementia whilst also optimizing the test geometry to increase sensitivity and specificity.

The field of optics and photonics is advancing at a phenomenal rate across its many sub-disciplines. What inspired you to pursue a profession in this field, and why do you enjoy it?

Dr. Prabodhi Nanayakkara

Due to my mother being a nurse, I was exposed to the field of medicine at a young age, which allowed me to understand how advances in medicine could save human lives. This is one of the key reasons why I was inspired to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering, which formed the foundation of my understanding of developing new materials. When I heard about the Ph.D. offered by the Advanced Technology Institute on developing a new X-ray detector technology to be used in cancer radiotherapy dosimetry applications, I was immediately interested. This opportunity aligned perfectly with my background in Materials Science and Engineering, which involves designing new materials, and my motive towards contributing to the advancements in the medical sector. It gives me great satisfaction knowing that the detector I developed can not only save lives, but also revolutionize radiotherapy treatment in a better direction.

Image Credit: Max4e Photo/Shutterstock.com

Prof. Laura M. Lechuga

I started working in Photonics during my postdoctoral period, and I realized at that time how powerful photonics is for achieving highly competitive devices. I learned the amazing possibilities of using photonics in the bio area and decided to focus my scientific career on the field of photonics biosensors with the objective of providing better diagnostics tools for a better life for people.

Dr. Alice Iles

I have always had a passion for helping people, and when it comes to research, this is all about impact. Optics and photonics is a rapidly growing field and its applications reach far beyond the internet; medical diagnostics is an incredibly important use for these techniques, which is where my personal interest lies.

According to UN reports, women are still statistically underrepresented in STEM worldwide. What are some of the ways through which hurdles as a result of gender bias can be overcome?

Dr. Prabodhi Nanayakkara

As a woman coming from an Asian background, I’m completely aware of this situation. It is very common in Asian countries for women to be stereotyped at a young age as being responsible for taking care of children and the household. Therefore, girls at a young age are encouraged to become proficient in those areas. Girls who aspire to become a professional in STEM areas are mostly discouraged or humiliated. Therefore, I believe that the view of the family, especially the mindset of parents towards girls pursuing studies or a career in STEM, should go through a drastic change.

Prof. Laura M. Lechuga

I am convinced that if we changed the education of children in schools, at home, and in all environments, we could achieve a truly egalitarian society. In this way, we could have many more girls studying and practicing in STEM careers. Gender bias can be overcome by a profound change in our mentalities and in our educational systems. Meanwhile, I am in favor of establishing gender quotas and in providing female role models for girls and children to have a mirror of themselves. 

Dr. Alice Iles

Firstly, you have to learn to appreciate your own skills and talent and not let it get to you, be persistent and learn some resilience – you are not alone in this battle. Secondly, get involved in outreach.

Give back and inspire young women by sharing your story and being a role model to those that might be lacking confidence.

Do you have any advice for young women or girls who wish to study or start a career in science?

Dr. Prabodhi Nanayakkara

My only advice for young women or girls is don’t try to fit into the stereotypical mold of society. Be brave and follow your dreams! You may face hardships along the way, but you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Prof. Laura M. Lechuga

Believe in yourselves and do go to STEM careers because you are equally able to reach all levels and all the positions that you can imagine! It's just a matter of perseverance, conviction, and hard work.

Dr. Alice Iles

Go for it. If you are inquisitive about how things work and want to have a real impact in the world, it’s a rewarding career! Have confidence in your ability and if you don’t … just pretend, because eventually you’ll start to believe it.

Looking Forward to 2023

Video Credit: UN Women / Youtube.com

Skyla Baily

Written by

Skyla Baily

Skyla graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSocSc Hons in Social Anthropology. During her studies, Skyla worked as a research assistant, collaborating with a team of academics, and won a social engagement prize for her dissertation. With prior experience in writing and editing, Skyla joined the editorial team at AZoNetwork in the year after her graduation. Outside of work, Skyla’s interests include snowboarding, in which she used to compete internationally, and spending time discovering the bars, restaurants and activities Manchester has to offer!

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