For this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Muhammad Faryad. Muhammad is an assistant professor and the chairman of physics department at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. Before joining LUMS in 2014, he worked as a postdoctoral scholar at The Pennsylvania State University, USA. Muhammad is also a section editor of the International Journal of Light and Electron Optics (Optik) and recipient of the 2019 International Commission on Optics (ICO)/The Abdus Salam International Centre of Theoretical Physics (ICTP) Galleino Denardo Award. His current research interests include solar cells, plasmonics, optical sensors, photonic crystals, and complex electromagnetic materials.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
When I was in high school, in my village it was customary for most of the students to opt for science, instead of humanities. I guess that custom also pushed me to science.
However, my deeper interest and understanding of science grew in high school because of my very hardworking and brilliant teachers—especially my very ecstatic physics teacher. As I reflect back, my interest was also helped by my father, who, perhaps just to chat, would usually ask me questions about many scientific phenomena. He would usually ask about the stars, the cycles of the sun and the moon, or the wonderful workings of the radio and television, and I would happily explain while going to sleep.
When I went to college, I was lucky enough to have a couple of very dedicated physics and mathematics professors who not only grounded me in the basic concepts but also increased my interest in the subjects that would later prove to be the foundations that I built on.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I find teaching and engaging with students the most exciting part of my job as a faculty member. The teaching job has this advantage over almost all other jobs in that we gain happiness not only from the satisfaction of teaching others, but also the knowledge gained by us while interacting with the students and preparing for the classes. Every day, I learn something substantially new, especially during the semester when I am teaching.
The same goes with the research. While doing research, we not only contribute to the development of scientific knowledge but also learn new things during this process. This dual process of learning and contributing is the most exciting part of my job.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
Joining the Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan, in 2006 for a Master of Science degree in electronics was the most important point in my career. There, I came across insightful teachers and I discovered my passion for electromagnetics and optics, which led me on to pursue my Ph.D. and become a faculty member. For the first time, I was mesmerized by the use of applied mathematics and basic laws of physics to not only understand how the world works but also how contemporary technologies are built using these principles.
It was also there, when I saw the use of the advanced mathematics in modelling systems and solving to analyze or predict their behavior, that I saw the reasons for having to study so much mathematics in high school and college. Before joining this two-year program, I had planned to go for a steady job after the M.Sc., but before I finished, I had found my calling to continue toward my Ph.D.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I try to visit as many conferences related to my area of research as possible to interact first-hand with the researchers who are doing cutting-edge work. Attending conferences and discussing the work with the top scientists cannot be substituted by online interactions. This also helps in learning about the new directions that are emerging in our areas of research. They key is to choose the conference that brings together diverse yet leading scientists in the field.
What tips do you have for effective collaboration in your field?
I think the key part, before any collaboration—especially involving several people or large groups—is to have a clear understanding of the role of each individual and the way to give due credit to every participant. Another important thing is to have a schedule of deliverables and regular meetings. Often times in collaborative work, people put off the work assuming that others will do it. Regular appraisal and sharing of progress keeps the projects on track.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
I wish I was exposed more to public outreach of scientific activities and research. Most of our research and teaching are sponsored by public funding and it is important that we convey our work and its importance not only to the technically advanced audience in our own disciplines but also to the general public. This helps keep the important source of public funding for the universities and the research programs. I think Ph.D. students should be somewhat trained in the public dissemination of the knowledge as well.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
I had two great mentors in my career. The first was my M. Phil. thesis advisor, Dr. Qaisar Naqvi of the Quaid-i-Azam University, who constantly encouraged me to do research in electromagnetics. I think that greatly helped me gain confidence in my abilities as a researcher. Some mentors underestimate the power of positive conditioning, but I think that is greatly helpful for students who, like me, come from a relatively underprivileged background, because those students lack the courage and confidence to set great expectations for themselves. The positive encouragement from a mentor can make these students shed their inhibitions and bring the best out of them.
My second great mentor was my Ph.D. thesis and postdoctorate advisor, Dr. Akhlesh Lakhtakia at Penn State, who actually made me the researcher and professional that I am. I really appreciate the long hours that he spent to train me in a wide range of issues, from the nitty-gritty of English grammar to the pivotal role of ethics in research and general issues of the academic profession, besides the level of rigor required in the scientific research. Even today, I still turn to him whenever I need advice on any academic or career issue.
While mentoring my research students, I think I try to copy the style of own advisors. I have learned that the investment of time in students is the most rewarding aspect of our job, both as teacher and researcher. It is very satisfying to see your students mature into better and independent researchers and thinkers.
What are daily habits that help you to be successful?
There are no particular habits that help me, I think. Actually, I usually struggle to keep a balance between different aspects of my job, e.g., teaching, mentoring students, research, committee work, meetings, and my family. For me it’s like a roller coaster. Sometimes, I spend the weeks and months on one course or a long research project from morning until late at night, every day of the week, with complete disregard to everything else—and other times, I spend weeks without doing anything meaningful. I am trying to get more organized, especially after becoming the chair of the department, because now I have to do some managerial work regularly and irregular work habits are not very helpful.
How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?
The role of leaders and bosses in the development of careers is very important. In academia, I think, it begins with the Ph.D. advisor. I was lucky to have a very a supportive and hardworking advisor who gave plenty of his time to me and mentored me to become not only a successful researcher but also a successful faculty member by constantly engaging me on various academic issues e.g., how to deal with plagiarism, thesis/paper evaluations, evaluations of peers for promotion, etc.
After I joined the LUMS as an assistant professor, the then department chair, Dr. Sabieh Anwar, actually set me up for success by starting me with a minimum teaching assignment that was also directly helpful in my research. I was gradually eased into the role of assistant professor while maintaining the momentum of a postdoctoral researcher. During my postdoctorate, my advisor recommended me for a weeklong course on teacher training. This greatly helped me prepare myself for the teaching role afterwards. This kind of thoughtful and futuristic support is what sets apart the successful and impactful leaders from the rest.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
In the near future, I want to expand my research portfolio to include topological photonic materials. My work so far has been focused on surface waves guided by anisotropic materials and photonic crystals. My research group, comprising Ph.D. and M.S. students, is working on surface plasmonics and optics of anisotropic metamaterials. However, the design of new metamaterials based on ideas from the condensed matter physics has made possible a new way of designing and thinking about metamaterials. In the near future, I would like to learn more about topological photonics and start a new research group in this area in Pakistan.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
I always wanted to become a philosopher. However, because of the perception of a lack of opportunities for decent employment for philosophers, I was driven to the sciences and engineering. Even now, I sometimes fantasize leaving electromagnetics and optics for philosophy.