In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Javier Alda, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, and Director of the Applied Optics Complutense Group. Alda received his Ph.D. in physics at the Complutense University of Madrid in 1988 before becoming a full professor. He has also been a visiting scholar at CREOL, University of Central Florida (FL, USA), at Stanford University (CA, USA), at the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí (San Luis Potosí, México), and at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte (NC, USA).
Alda’s main areas of interest in optics have been laser beam propagation and transformation, matrix optics, application of multivariate techniques to optics, and optical antennas and resonant optics. He has also collaborated with companies and institutions to solve engineering problems in optics.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
High school is always relevant in any personal biography. At that time, I was good at STEM and performed well in class. I guess that I have always been quite reluctant to memorizing, a key for humanities. I preferred the inner beauty and logic behind math and physics and how things worked in nature and technology. Eventually, as a physicist, I found that the wiring in my brain is biased towards answering questions using scientific foundations.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
For me, working in academia creates a good balance between teaching and research, with an almost absolute freedom to weigh on each part at your will. Teaching undergraduate and graduate students is exciting because I have the opportunity to encourage and present optics as a powerful and inspiring field.
Even though students sometimes prefer to pass courses using the least-energy principle, there is a significant number of students for which you become a witness to the click in their brains when a given principle or concept fills the gap in their understanding. For those students, the sometimes heavy burden of teaching is beyond worth it. Besides, training Ph.D. students is likely one of the most rewarding experiences in academia. Their curiosity to understand optics is a driving force to create meaningful knowledge; it is also an opportunity to transmit the joy of working in science.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
The optics community—national and internationally—is a small world. We are a group of professionals in industry and academia with a wide variety of interests and activities: engineering applications to the edge of scientific knowledge. So, mingle, be open, listen to others, and make connections. Networking is key for success and for a better understanding of how people address different technical solutions (this also applies to the business part of the optics industry). It is very important that you become a solid, approachable, and reliable colleague. The best way to do this is to ask and answer questions to your fellow colleagues honestly.
How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?
Leadership has different flavors depending on the country, the institution, and the local culture. In my opinion, the most important skill for a leader is to have enough of a reputation to have their voice heard and respected by the people around them. Leadership has to be nurtured by a precise and always difficult balance of empathy and motivation to establish reasonable goals and rules that everyone could share. Although compassion and some elemental social skills are important, a leader doesn’t need to be everyone’s friend; they need to accomplish the harmonic development of the group members.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
In my case, the first professional decision that I took was suggested by my wife 36 years ago, when she encouraged me to apply for a position at the Complutense University of Madrid. It was the first step into a series of professional milestones where my family has always supported me. So, I would conclude that one of the best career decisions I took resulted from trusting myself and the people who cared for me.
Within my career path, I am very proud to complete a postdoc stay abroad. Being in contact with a different culture has helped me appreciate my own even further, learn from outstanding researchers, such as Prof. Glenn Boreman, and maintain the right amount of “habits” from my previous training—discarding unnecessary ones. After my first trip to Florida (US) in 1989, I have used my sabbatical leaves to go abroad and gain experience by being in a different environment, challenged by various scientific problems. Although it is a bit of a cliché, moving out from your comfort zone is always a good idea. Your mind aches a little bit in the beginning, but you are exposed to new ways of doing things and perspectives that you never thought of.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
A wide set of skills are important; however, two connected abilities have been important to me in the long term: being open to sharing knowledge (which usually translates into learning from others in return) and modesty to approach the difficult tasks that require study and focus. From my point of view, when you share your findings, you typically get more than you give. Considering modesty, when you recognize that you don’t know everything (which is completely normal), you are already taking a step forward in the right direction. Modesty always provides stamina to go through a difficult paper (or book) to extract the key points you need to solve your problem.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Fortunately, optics is wide and multifaceted. If you like academia, it is possible to pursue a career as a researcher within universities or research labs. If you are interested in industry, optics is ubiquitous, and very few professionals have the necessary training to solve problems using light.
Consequently, an optical engineer should be able to develop a successful career in almost any technological company. Obviously, if you don’t feel supported in your job, move on, and after checking in with your values, skills, strengths, and capabilities, look for new opportunities. When considering your situation, as I learned from my friends, remember that we spend around one-third of our time in the workplace, so you must do something that you consider exciting and inspiring.
What is one piece of advice you would give to students or early-career professionals as they start their careers?
I would encourage them to develop other skills besides their “academic training”: how not to get stuck from mistakes, how to manage conflicts, how to organize their time to enhance productivity, how to find a work-life balance that works for them, etc. If I have to mention a flaw in Millennials: very often, they want things instantly. So, my advice would be to work on being patient: real knowledge arrives after some time and some “mental gymnastics.” I believe patience will be one of their best tools for resilience throughout their life and career.
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 in a Ph.D. program is an intricate journey. At the beginning of a Ph.D. project, the hints given by the advisor are always taken as engraved in stone by the student. However, as time goes on, a good student finds their own path. At this stage, the role of the advisor is the one of a shepherd: drive the students to the green meadows of science, and protect them from the tramps surrounding every personal endeavor.
In the end, if everything works as expected, the new Ph.D. graduate should be the one who knows better the selected topic of their dissertation. Once graduated, there are still some words of wisdom to share with the student: “This piece of science that you made is just the first one. There are plenty of them, most likely even better than this, that lie ahead of you. Go fly on your own; we will be here if you ever need it.”