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Senior Member Insights: Phyllis R. Nelson

Phyllis R. Nelson

Phyllis R. Nelson

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Dr. Phyllis R. Nelson, the faculty director of data analytics at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), Pomona, and a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Nelson became a faculty member after working in the aerospace industry for both the Hughes Aircraft Company and TRW and serving as a research staff member at universities in France and the United States. As co-director of Cal Poly Pomona’s Center for Macromolecular Modeling and Materials Design, she oversaw an expansion of laboratory facilities for use by faculty and students in the Colleges of Engineering and Science, including substantial support for modern optical-materials characterization techniques. Nelson has also created or modified a number of courses in optics and electromagnetics and supervised undergraduate and graduate research students in various optics and photonics projects.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

Astronomy. Starting when I was very small, I was fascinated by the night sky. As I grew older, I was even more fascinated to learn about the variety of objects that appeared to me like stars. One year, I was given a basic telescope and started observing, but I’m not a late-night person. I took up telescope making in junior high school, grinding the mirror for my own home-built Newtonian telescope.

At the same time, I took geometry in school. Algebra hadn’t really interested me, but with geometry, I had an “aha” moment! I began to understand math as a language for describing certain aspects of the universe. I started to read the math books in our local public library, and the rest is history.

If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would she be most surprised by?

Since I am in my early 70s, ten years earlier is probably not long enough to see a big change. I started my career as tenure-line faculty a bit over twenty years ago and have loved teaching. I guess the big surprise would be that this year I left it to apply my math and computer skills in a full-time position helping my university make better use of its data to support learning, learners, teaching, and instructors.

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

Be active in professional societies—volunteer at the conference that supports your research area. Become an active reviewer for that conference and a journal. Get involved in not only national and international activities, but see if there is a local chapter of Optica or another organization that gives you not only opportunities to network with other professionals but, if you have the interest, engage in outreach. Helping the general public understand science and engineering is critical to our future.

What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?

Going back to finish my Ph.D. after working a number of years as an engineer in the aerospace industry supported my need to have more opportunities to take on more complicated and interdisciplinary questions and also to travel. After a postdoctoral year in a French university, I was a research staff at a major university before taking on my faculty position. As a faculty member, I have worked on projects with architects, chemists, physicists, artists, computer scientists and engineers.

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

A solid foundation in math through multivariate calculus gives the technical language, but the ability to communicate the results to a more general audience is equally critical. In my opinion, the best preparation is a broad general understanding of math and physics plus a strong concentration in a particular specialty. It’s important to know what it feels like to know something at an expert level and how to get there. It is also essential to be able to set that expertise in the context of broader problems. Creating effective presentations is an art that is far too rare in optics and other technical fields, so take every chance to get better.

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

I remember the moment that I decided to go back to finish my Ph.D. I was a systems engineer in the Hughes Aircraft Space and Communications Group, working on various communications satellite and other space programs. Harold Rosen, one of the top managers, gave a talk that I attended. One of the questions he was asked was, “What do you see as the most exciting career opportunities here right now?” When he answered “MBAs,” I could see that the days of the hand-crafted individual satellite were going away and with them the volume of novel design work.

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

I’m going to turn this question around and talk about the advice that I was given that was critical to my ability to understand my workplace. When I took my first job after graduating with my BSEE, I felt that I was being assigned many uninteresting projects during the first six months. My manager sensed that I was not happy and brought the topic up. I admitted that I thought it was because they didn’t think a woman was as competent.

Instead of denying that was true or taking any particular stance on the topic, he suggested that I talk to the men who were hired along with me. I did and found out that they were being assigned much the same kind of work. I learned not to make assumptions or take things personally, but to look for the facts.

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

Although I’m a bit of an introvert, I have enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to mentor junior faculty. I love their excitement and often share their early frustrations with teaching. Unfortunately, most Ph.D.s are focused on their research and, even if they spend time as a teaching assistant, haven’t been taught much of the art of teaching. It is amazing to see them develop their own styles, especially when I can help them understand the culture of our institution.

An important lesson I learned from an early mentor had nothing to do with my technical skills. One day I was really upset about something that had happened, but I told her that I would “get over it” in a day or two and get on with my task. She told me that feelings are facts and, if they aren’t acknowledged, can lead one to choose less than optimal reactions in situations that bring them up again.

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

I’m exploring potential start-up opportunities with a friend.

Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?

I like to be outdoors. I live in the mountains, so walking around my neighborhood means hiking, but I also love kayaking, gardening, and woodworking. On snowy winter nights, I like to read.

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