Nicolas Bonod on the Role of Inspiration

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Nicolas Bonod

For this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Nicolas Bonod. Nicolas is a CNRS senior researcher working at the Institut Fresnel, France, and serves as a deputy editor for Optics Express. His current interests cover the fields of all-dielectric nanophotonics, resonant light–matter interactions, diffractive optics and modal analysis.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

My main motivation was initially to improve my understanding of some of the most interesting laws of physics and their applications—for example, thermodynamics, interferences, fluid dynamics and electromagnetism. I became increasingly drawn to science as my scientific studies became more advanced, and I also enjoyed the way science pushes your limits in terms of understanding and concentration.

In addition, I found viewing the most important advances in science through the prism of history to be particularly rewarding. I have always been fascinated by the long history of light, and in particular wave–particle duality, over the centuries and also by the biographies of the greatest scientists.

Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere? 

Learning mathematics and physics, and fully understanding the theories, requires considerable effort that in itself can become a difficulty. I have experienced periods of discouragement during my studies when I was more interested in classical literature. However, I found some inspiring scientific books and came back to science by spending hours reading and learning by myself to quench my thirst for answers. Secondly, I was lucky enough to meet excellent professors who pushed me to follow my path in academic research.

Perseverance, self-motivation and enthusiasm are very much required for successfully defending a Ph.D. thesis, for which you may have to overcome numerous difficulties such as solving demanding theoretical problems and debugging numerical implementations or experimental set-ups. Failures are also experienced by senior researchers who may be deeply disappointed when receiving negative decisions from editors or evaluators. It is then necessary to look forward to the next challenge to regain motivation.

What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?

My involvement in Optics Express as a deputy editor gives me the opportunity to read numerous papers covering many different fields. I also review papers and proposals and follow the main achievements of my colleagues all around the world by reading their latest publications.

Additionally, I travel extensively to visit groups in different countries and to attend conferences. I am also on the organizing and scientific committees of several conferences. I have always enjoyed interacting with other researchers and sharing their latest advances, and prefer workshops and schools that favor discussions and scientific exchanges. When I organized a series of four international summer schools on plasmonics, I relied on this format.

What tips do you have for effective collaboration in your field?

First, good collaboration requires mutual trust between the different partners. Second, it requires complementary skills between the partners. Third, good collaboration also requires a shared and balanced effort between the different partners. Each partner must bring novel ideas to the table and sustain maximum effort for supporting and advancing the project. Fourth, you have to move ahead and find new partnerships, not allowing shyness or fear of sharing new ideas to stand in the way.

What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

I feel very lucky to have been supervised by inspiring scientists during my master's internship, for my Ph.D. thesis and later during my postdoctoral fellowship. It is evident that all these talented teachers and gifted mentors enabled me to follow a career in academic research. Recalling this time and their methods helps me now to mentor students in what, I hope, is in turn an effective way for them.

A good mentor sees each member of the group as a whole person, with a particular personality and scientific background. A good mentor knows how to tune the research activity to match the weaknesses and strengths of each scientist. And, very importantly, a good mentor praises students and colleagues and acknowledges their value.

How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?

Leadership plays a key role in career development, and it is one of the most interesting aspects of our job. You have to dedicate significant time to supervise the activity of your group, to make right decisions and to give the best advice to encourage your colleagues, friends and students. Kindness is vital in research, as is becoming a good team player. You have to keep in mind the well-being and inclusivity of all team members.

I believe that the qualities required for good leadership are not specific to science. Therefore, you can improve your leadership skills by taking inspiration from many other domains, such as sports, literature and daily life. 

What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?

Most of all, you will have to demonstrate creativity, involvement, seriousness and originality. I think it is important to show that you will be able to integrate into the existing group activities while bringing new creative ideas that will reinforce the dynamism of the group. You can also show personal interest in related areas that demonstrate your curiosity in the wider field.

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

I am looking forward to improving my own scientific skills and to meeting inspiring people. As a researcher, I do my best to identify the next challenges in optics and photonics to which I believe I can contribute significant advances. Addressing these next challenges requires attracting the best students and junior researchers. I also really enjoy my activity in scientific editing and I am looking forward to strengthening my involvement in this field.

If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?

Certainly, I could have developed professionally in other domains, but honestly, I feel fulfilled where I am right now. Scientific research fits very well with my aspirations. I love the research thematics that I am currently involved in and the partnerships that I have built across the years.

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