Ian Ashdown on Fostering Creativity

Ian Ashdown

Ian Ashdown

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Ian Ashdown, senior scientist and president of SunTracker Technologies, Victoria, BC, Canada, where he and his team develop lighting-design software for architectural, horticultural, entertainment and health applications. Ashdown is a consultant with more than 40 years’ experience in lighting design, research and development, and software engineering. He is an OSA Senior Member and a Fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society. He chairs several IES and CIE committees and has published 42 academic papers, more than 100 technical articles, one book and six book chapters. He also holds more than 160 patents and patents pending.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

I am forever grateful to my parents for their gift of a telescope at the age of twelve. It sparked my interest in astronomy and telescope making and, through it, a lifelong fascination with optical radiation from far-ultraviolet through far-infrared.

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

The freedom to conduct my own self-funded research and the ability to pursue cross-disciplinary topics, all in aid of developing commercial-lighting-design software for my company.

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

I am the wrong person to ask, as I have always preferred to work alone or with my team. If pressed, however, I will opine that it is not who you know but what you know that is important. Unless you intend to become a manager, the most marketable skill you have will be your knowledge and ability to apply it to problem-solving.

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

Reading and publishing. I have an active interest in all sciences, for which websites like enable me to keep up to date on everything from archaeology to zoology. Of course, I also monitor a long list of academic journals for more in-depth information. I have been publishing articles and academic papers for over fifty years, but these days I find a broader and more career-oriented audience through websites such as ResearchGate and LinkedIn. Knowledge is only useful when it is shared, and even writing review articles for trade journals helps not only your career but also many others.

What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?

In no particular order, scientific software programming, mathematics, and an insatiable desire to learn. Programming, whether in C++, Python, Matlab or even Excel, allows you to understand and explore ideas. Mathematics, when properly understood rather than learned by rote, enables you to have confidence in both your programs and scientific software. Learning … well, never stop.

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

There has never been a turning point in my career. Rather, it has flowed smoothly from medical photography through electrical engineering, telecommunications software, computer graphics research, solid-state lighting, holography, near-field imaging, high-dynamic-range displays, and lately horticultural lighting, botany, and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. The connection between all of these topics (and more) has been an enduring love of mathematics and an endless fascination with light.

There have been numerous occasions where I have been told by experts in the field that there was no solution for a particular problem. As an outsider, I did not have the knowledge and experience to even understand the issues. As my favorite cartoon character, Yosemite Sam, used to say, “Them’s fightin’ words, varmint!” Apart from medicine and organic chemistry, I have never been daunted by any scientific field of inquiry. Being told that there is no solution to a problem is invariably a challenge and has resulted (so far) in over 160 patents and patent applications.

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

I will honor a friend who offered me this sage and timeless advice thirty years ago: “Never strive to become a manager—they are always the first to be hired and the first to be let go. Instead, keep on top of technological advances in your field—experts will always be in demand.”

He was at the time an IBM mainframe programming consultant, but he was right. What I learned in the intervening years, however, is that “your field” is a self-defeating limitation. Whatever field you are in, it will undoubtedly have strong, albeit possibly hidden, connections to many other topics. The more you learn about other fields, no matter how obscure, the easier it will be to find (and potentially patent) “out-of-the-box” solutions to problems.

For example, as a teenager, I was interested in butterfly collecting and the science of lepidoptery. Three decades later, I investigated novel optical films for architectural lighting applications and wondered why the iridescent blue of Morpho butterflies was basically independent of the viewing angle. That single question led to research into kinoform diffusers, a half-million-dollar investment in a bespoke holographic research lab, several patents, and an estimated US$50 million (and counting) in revenue from high-volume holographic diffuser manufacturing for my client. It would be another decade before “structural color” became part of our lexicon.

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

In reverse order, I have never had a mentor, and the hardest part of being a mentor is convincing students that they can think for themselves and be creative. My goal these days is to hire student interns and convince them that they can be as creative as they want to be. A half-dozen recent patents and patents pending have validated this approach.

What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?

Read everything. The answers to your most challenging problems will come from recognizing patterns and parallels with other fields.

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

I have been living my dream career for the past three decades, and at the age of 71, I am just getting started.

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