In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Susanna M. Thon—an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University and a fellow of the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute (HEMI), USA. Thon’s current research is in the field of nanomaterials engineering for optoelectronic devices, with a specific focus on renewable-energy conversion and optical sensing. She is an NSF CAREER Award winner and the current Chair of the OSA Optics for Energy technical group.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I always liked math in school, but I was curious about many things, and eager to study many subjects. I imagined that scientists spent their days finding answers to interesting questions, and this appealed to me as a career. I had several teachers who encouraged my interests in science and engineering in high school, and that led me to major in physics in college.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I really enjoy mentoring students, both undergraduates and graduates. I love the enthusiasm and new ideas that students bring to the lab and their classes. On the research side, I am currently very excited about applying the many interesting new ideas and techniques that have been developed in fields such as machine learning to my area of optoelectronics. I think we as a field are poised to make some exciting new discoveries involving new architected materials and devices due to the massive amounts of data that we can now collect and process.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
I would encourage early-career professionals to attend as many conferences as possible, where people expect to be networking and meeting new people. If you have anxiety around networking (as I do), you can try to plan questions ahead of time for people that you are eager to meet.
Another good way to meet people is to put yourself in a position to be giving out invitations. That can mean putting yourself forward for leadership positions at your institution, company, professional society, or even submitting suggestions for invited speakers to those who are in charge.
How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?
It sounds obvious, but the best way to hone your leadership skills is to serve in leadership positions. That can be accomplished by getting involved in your professional society (OSA has many opportunities) and by volunteering to serve on committees at your home institution or company. Mentoring students or those in more junior positions is also a great way to practice leadership skills and gain experience with project management and planning.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
I think the best career decision I ever made was taking my postdoc position. I was feeling fairly burnt out on research in general at the end of my Ph.D., and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in academia. I decided to give it one more shot, but I also decided I wanted to switch fields. I did some careful research and ended up choosing a field that I thought fit my background, but offered some new applications. I also got lucky because my postdoc position provided me with some really excellent mentorship and new opportunities that renewed my interest in research and led me to my current academic position.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
I think communication skills are still undervalued in the sciences and engineering. Learning how to construct an exciting and engaging research talk, especially for an audience beyond your immediate subfield, is really important, both for getting people to remember you and your work and for attracting talent to your research group. The ability to tell a compelling story around your research also extends to areas such as writing papers and grant applications.
In terms of technical skills, I think learning how to quickly read papers and synthesize the most useful information is a skill that all scientists can benefit from. There are so many exciting results being published all the time, and it’s critical to stay on top of that deluge of information so your own research remains current.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
In my personal experience, doing something new has always helped me when I’ve been discouraged. That doesn’t have to mean something as drastic as finding a new job or switching career paths—sometimes it can be small actions like seeking out a new collaboration, taking on a new duty at work or finding a new mentor. If you’re a student, it could mean taking a new class, finding a summer internship, learning a new lab skill or asking to get involved in a new project in a secondary role. I find that having something novel to occupy your mind for at least part of the day can make your current discouraging circumstances seem less dire and can often provide perspective.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
If you’re interested in a career in academia, it’s never too soon to learn how to write grant applications. I certainly wished I had more practice at this before I became an assistant professor.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
From mentoring others, I have learned that people really do have different learning styles and different motivators. This has taught me important lessons about both patience and adaptability. Some of the best ideas for how to run my research group have come from my former students during the “exit interviews” that I do upon their graduation.
I have learned many things from my own mentors, including how to tell a story in every paper that you write and the importance of looking outside of your own field for ideas and inspiration. Probably the most important lesson I have learned is to seize opportunities that come your way, even if you don’t feel prepared for them. Imposter syndrome is real, but having a mentor that believes in you can really mitigate its effects! If someone you admire believes that you can do something, then who are you to tell them they’re wrong? I’ve been lucky to have such mentors in my own career.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
At this point, I am most looking forward to addressing big, interdisciplinary problems in my career. I think there are many opportunities to bring together experts around existential issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 crisis, and I think optical scientists have a large role to play in those areas.