Every June when my university, Colorado State, launches the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) Program, jointly offered with the University California at Berkeley, an infusion of energy occurs. The eager student participants are motivated to work on exciting research projects, which in our case span from high energy and ultrashort pulse lasers and their applications to the generation of coherent extreme ultraviolet sources, and spectroscopies. Everyone gets involved, graduate students, and senior personnel, mentoring the newly arrived students by introducing them to experiments that will train them in fundamental optics and photonics concepts, facilitating laboratory visits, and seminars that showcase the most recent advances in our field. This is a cycle that in a university environment repeats with the arrival of every student that joins a research program. We, the faculty, pride ourselves with training a cohort of student experts in photonics who will then lead challenging projects in industry, research labs and universities. The impact of these efforts is enormous, from the perspective of human resources and economic development.
It is for the impact of our education, mentoring and training activities that it is critical we make every possible effort to increase the participation of women within such programs and our profession. Women are 49.584% of the world population according to World Bank data. Within Engineering in the United States, statistics from the NSF show that in 2018 women received 22.2% of Bachelors’ degrees, 25.78% of Masters’ degrees and 24.53% of doctorate degrees. Nevertheless, we all know that in Electrical Engineering, in which many photonics research activities reside, these numbers are lower. It is evident in the classroom, in our research groups, in our conferences, which in spite of all of the efforts of organizing committees, the number of plenary, keynote and invited talks given by women is at best equal to the number of doctorates given in Engineering above.
There is a lot of room for improvements to impact the recruitment and retention of women in photonics, and it takes a multifaceted approach. Outreach activities to students at an early age, including pre university methods, are important to bring awareness of what we do. The IEEE Photonics Society is involved in these types of activities through networking opportunities, regional events, and educational resources, as well as through access to funding and volunteer opportunities. However, at the undergraduate level, I find that the most effective way to mentor women is by inviting them to participate in a research project, as in this way students get a full scope of how I work and handle relationships. At the graduate level and beyond, it becomes easier to retain women if they are offered the opportunity to develop their technical and leadership skills and are given the support to accommodate their personal needs.
An example of a successful regional event that recently took place at the Compound Semiconductor Week (CSW 2021) was organized by Dr. Ayodeji Coker, Science Director from USA Office of Naval Research Global, and Qin Wang, Senior Expert Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and IEEE Women in Photonics Affinity Group Representative for the IEEE Photonics Sweden Chapter. Women speakers were invited to present their scientific results aimed to inspire young professionals and graduate students to embrace new technology leaps in the field. The talk topics included:
Nanotechnology; Infrared Detection; RF Applications; Laser Interferometer Space Communications; Bandgap Semiconductors; and Nanoscale Engineered Silicon Imaging.
Our Associate Vice-President of Women in Photonics, Deepa Venkitesh from Indian Institute of Technology Madras, is also strategically leading a “Re-Ignite: Back to Career” program, proposed to roll-out this Fall. The program is designed to assist women and gender minorities returning or transitioning in the field. It will include mentorship pairings, soft-skills trainings, and grants to support individualized project goals and onboard learning. More information on this program can be found on the Society’s IEEE Women in Photonics webpage in the coming months.
Many of our professionals are involved in similar efforts to attract and retain women, and certainly as a Society we will continue expanding our efforts. We are all very conscious that drop by drop a bucket fills up, so impacting our immediate environment is critical. In turn, efforts in increasing the participation of women in leadership positions at conferences, publications and membership are extensive. Nevertheless, I question whether further transformational change may be possible. At this stage in which we heavily rely on many of the photonics technologies that connect us, that are instrumental in advancing medical diagnostics and are key in many other technologies that impact humanity, we cannot afford losing talent!
In this issue of the Newsletter we celebrate ‘International Women Day’ by recognizing the many achievements of women in the profession. This yearly celebration also brings awareness of the challenges that remain to make the environment in which we work more inclusive.
At the IEEE Photonics Society, we are committed to expanding the participation of women, through our dedicated IEEE Women in Photonics program. We would like to inclusively invite our members to bring their ideas and enthusiasm forward to further diversify the range of individuals and perspectives building the technology and information of tomorrow. We encourage mentors and others who want to help advance the future of women in photonics to get involved. The stories of successful women in leadership roles and supportive global, educational programs can serve as inspiration and a model for others to follow.
With warm regards.
Carmen S. Menoni
IEEE Photonics Society