Friday, June 17, 2011

Women in optics

Most of you who read this blog probably have received an email newsletter from OSA yesterday. I was offended when I read the first sentence of the message from the president (President’s message, JUNE OPN): “If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re male.” I am a female yet I am reading this, I said to myself. As I read on I realize that the president tried to help women in optics. He mentioned that “our best estimate is that fewer than 1 in 10 of our regular and Fellow members are female.”

There will around 150 participants for the 2011 NLO. I wonder how many of them are female? 20 years ago I started college in the department of optical engineering department in Zhejiang University, which is the first institute for optics education and research in China. The ratio of female and male students is 1 to 7. After we graduated, I am the only one of the 8 who shared the same dormitory who continues to be in optics.

As one of the very few in the Quantum optics group here lead by Dr. Scully, I realized that I need to do something to stand out the female dominated workplace. Most of the times, I am the only woman in a meeting. I started to wear pink shirts, in an effort to light up the dark color dressed men during a meeting or conference. I wear pink so often that one of the professor once called me “pink lady”.

A picture of me standing in front of my poster in last year Ultrafast Phenomenon conference

I do feel what the OSA president Chris Dainty said in the message “Women in optics…somehow feeling that they are neither a 'proper woman' nor a 'proper scientists.'” The reason, however, is different from he stated that women in optics being isolated or treat differently. My supervisor has three female Ph. D. students (out of a handful women who received Ph. Ds in the whole department) graduate in his lab the last few years. He is very supportive of my work and has offered me flexibility of working part time in the lab. I have been here in almost 10 years (due to family reasons I stayed here as a postdoc after I get my PhD.) so now being a senior member in the lab I am pretty well respected by my colleagues. Yet, the feeling of not a “proper woman ” is due to the constant feeling of I don’t spend enough time with my kids, while the feeling of not a proper scientist arises from I can’t work many long hours as an experimentalist because I want to be at home at kids’ bedtime.

When I was 4 month pregnant with my 2nd baby I met Paul Corkum (Canadian physicist specializing in attosescond physics and laser science) at a conference in Canada. I mentioned to him my concern of being a mom of two and working full time. He said he actually liked his female PhD students. The reason: although they can’t be physically in the lab many hours but they think more while they are away from work. Many times when I am frustrated with not having enough time to work, I always remember his encouraging words.

The president mentioned mentorship in his newsletter. In 2006, USC started the first Conference for Undergraduate Women in PHYSICS. Now there are northeast conference (Yale-MIT), California Conference , Midwest Conference and Southeast Conference. Next year, for the first time, Texas A&M University is possibly going to host the southwest conference. I, as one of the organizing committee member, try to help other women in physics. There are many great talks by successful women in this conference. Hopefully this will also promote more women undergraduates study optics as well.

At the end of the message, the president referred to excellent resources on this subject. For those of you who are interested please have a look.