Angela Demetriadou on the Strategic Approach

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Angela Demetriadou

For this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Angela Demetriadou. Angela is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and leads the Theoretical Nanophotonics group at the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham, U.K. Her interests focus on the general fields of nanophotonics, nanoplasmonics and metamaterials. Recently, her work has specialized on the theory of light–matter interaction between molecules and nanopalsmonic devices.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

I always had an inclination towards physical sciences. I do not remember myself ever having a strong interest in pursuing anything else. My father was a mathematician and from early on he nurtured my interest towards mathematical and physical sciences. My decision to eventually follow physics, and not maths, caused some discussions at home, but I found the subject so intriguing that I stood my ground!

While I find maths interesting, physics is fascinating because I can use mathematics and abstract concepts to describe and understand real-life phenomena and problems. This fascination continues to this day and it was the main reason for my choice of a theoretical Ph.D. in metamaterials and my current focus on theoretical quantum nanoplasmonics, where I use both analytical and numerical descriptions for light–matter interactions at the nanoscale.

What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?

I think the most interesting part of my work is that I constantly learn new things. I find it very boring if I have to do repetitive work. As a researcher, I constantly have to learn new techniques to develop and progress my understanding of a particular topic or even change topics, which means that there is no dull day.

Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?

I believe that every career is a collection of many decisions, successes and failures. But if I had to pick one moment, it would be when I was awarded the University Research Fellowship from The Royal Society. This is the most prestigious fellowship in the U.K. and it is highly competitive. It was the moment that I felt my career was taking the trajectory that I always aspired to achieve.

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

To stay active and engaged with the field, I need to both be very well informed about the latest research developments and network successfully with more senior researchers and my peers.

I use Google Scholar alerts to notify me of new topical publications and email alerts from journals that my community publishes in. The literature these days is very vast, so to sort through articles and stay on-top of the literature, I find Mendeley particularly helpful.

To network successfully, I aim to attend scientific conferences and workshops. I find smaller, more focused workshops make it easier to meet people and discuss my work and recent research developments because they attract a very specialized crowd. Larger conferences are very good for promoting my work to a broader audience and for initiating interdisciplinary collaborations.

What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals? 

I approach every conference and workshop strategically in terms of networking. Well in advance of the conference, I always check the list of attendees, highlight the people I want to talk to and make sure that I am prepared for the particular topic.

I usually approach people either after their talk or during the coffee or lunch breaks. I ask questions about what they presented, the methodologies they use, etc., and then they usually ask about my work. This is an easy way of meeting new people and, of course, friends and colleagues at conferences can introduce you to new people as well.

Don’t be afraid to email people after you meet them at a conference, but make sure that there is a reason for doing this. For example, if you aim to collaborate with them, you can send them your relevant papers (that you discussed at the conference), or a better description of an idea you were pitching to them, or your CV if they mentioned that they are recruiting and you want to join their group.

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?

I was fortunate enough to be mentored and supervised by exceptional scientists that are also brilliant people. However, as a woman working in physics, very often I found myself at the wrong side of hostile comments, exclusive behaviour and bad manners coming from some of my peers. Looking back, I realize now that most of the bad behaviour was actually reflecting the specific individual’s insecurities, insufficiencies and limitations. People content with themselves have no need to behave in this way.

So, if you are a student or early-career scientist from a minority group, stop listening and develop a thick skin. Try to surround yourself with people that you can collaborate and communicate constructively with.

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

Being a mentor to others is one of the most fascinating aspects of this job. Learning to motivate people according to their individual character and personality can sometimes be challenging. But watching young scientists learn a new topic that you introduce them to, and flourish in it, is immensely rewarding and my favourite part of the job.

From my mentors, I learned most of my organizational skills, being kind to my peers and especially the younger generation, social skills and of course technical skills.

What are daily habits that help you to be successful?

Being organized and constantly planning my day and week, and making adjustments accordingly. In this way, I make sure that I complete all of the tasks that are important and I do not miss any opportunities or deadlines.

I also have specific time-slots every day that I check and clear up my mailbox, to ensure that people depending on my response can always reach me, but without my day being consumed by constantly answering emails.

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

Be honest and direct about anything work-related. Of course present yourself in the best light, but never lie. Own up to mistakes and explain how you tried to overcome them. People sitting on recruitment panels have so much experience at interviewing potential candidates that they are very good at spotting lies. Present who you are, be open to try new things and let them decide whether you fit in the group and for the particular job.

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

My first Ph.D. students graduating.

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

I consider myself very lucky, because I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.

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