In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Jinyang Liang, an assistant professor at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), Université du Québec, Varennes, Canada and director of the Laboratory of Applied Computational Imaging (LACI).
Liang received his B.E. degree in optoelectronic engineering from the Beijing Institute of Technology, China, in 2007 and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, USA, in 2009 and 2012. From 2012 to 2017, Liang was a postdoctoral trainee at Washington University in St. Louis and the California Institute of Technology, USA. His research focuses primarily on implementing optical-modulation techniques to develop new computational optical instruments for applications in physics, materials science and biomedicine.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I guess my childhood experience in science museums. When I was young, my family took vacations every summer. As a tradition, we spent one day in a science museum in the city that we visited. In the beginning, it was just tons of fun to play with toys and observe interesting phenomena. As time went by, I started to understand the principles behind these games, which really fascinated me.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I get to work with my team to invent new systems and discover new knowledge.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
I would suggest updating your latest progress to your mentors and asking them for guidance and opportunities. I have gotten so much help from my mentors since I started my independent research career.
I would also suggest disseminating your research progress in certain venues and presenting the progress regularly. This could create lots of opportunities to meet experts who are most relevant to your research.
How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?
Leadership exerts great importance in career development. A good leader can guide the team to complete high-quality research projects within the required timeframe. A good leader also motivates the team members and develops their potential for their future careers.
To hone my leadership skills, I keep up with the latest progress in my field by attending conferences, reading papers, and exchanging ideas with my colleagues. These activities allow me to point out the best route to my team members to execute the research project efficiently. I also discipline myself to set the example for my group members in quality, diligence and dedication. Finally, I serve my team by listening to their needs and helping them solve problems.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
For me, it was my decision to take the postdoctoral position in Prof. Lihong V. Wang’s laboratory. It was a risky move, as my Ph.D. thesis was a bit far away from the research topics of Prof. Wang’s group. But it was absolutely a correct move. The experience in his lab exposed me to lots of talents. I had opportunities to work on many highly interdisciplinary projects, which largely expanded the horizon of my knowledge scope. I also got to use state-of-the-art infrastructure to conduct research.
Besides research, Prof. Wang also taught me many essential skills in paper writing, grant preparation, and time management. Besides the scientific outcome, I was deeply influenced by his pursuit of excellence in research. These developments led me to academia.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
I think management is the skill that junior professors often lack, so in this sense, it is the most important skill, at least one of them. Through years of training, many of us know how to conceive new ideas, design/run experiments, and disseminate results. However, at least I found it is rather challenging to manage a research group, keep track of the execution of all projects, and properly allocate time to research, administration, and teaching with the best efficiency. As such, I would suggest reading related books and/or taking some online courses, which would help enormously to ensure a smooth start to an independent career.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Being young, you have time to try and fail. I would suggest openly discussing the challenges and struggles with relevant people to seek help. To me, sharing and listening are essential for alleviating the mental and physical burdens of unpleasant situations. In addition, in working, you could inform your mentors and your colleagues about your struggles. Many of them want to help, and they want to see you succeed in your career as a young scientist.
If your current career path is blocked, it is perfectly okay to switch your career. After all, age is still on your side. There are many successful examples. Changing career paths does not mean you give up. It only means that you have found a more suitable direction that is worth pursuing.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
For a graduate student, I would say stay focused to make quick progress in the initial phase of graduate study. It can be overwhelming when first-year Ph.D./M.Sc. students step into a laboratory. They may get lost in the technical terms in a scientific conversation. They may also have a difficult time selecting the best path to engage in their research. In my opinion, it would be much easier if they could intentionally block these external “disturbances” but stay focused on the specific tasks of the project. Ask for specific resources and clear directions from a mentor. Make a checklist and check them off one by one.
I think this approach has several merits. It could quickly establish a mutually open communication channel between the student and the mentor. The frequent exchange could make the student move quickly to the specific goals. Second, the student will not be drowned by excessive suggestions from lab members, despite out of kindness, who may not always point in the best direction. Finally, quick progress, which may lead to the first publication, is certainly a confidence booster. A literature review focused on a specific topic would increase the breadth and depths of this field. All these efforts would likely set up positive feedback that contributes to a productive and fulfilling graduate study.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
One of the things that I learned from mentorship is that frequent communication is very helpful. It is not just a way to check the research progress of trainees but, more importantly, a channel to simply ask, “How are you doing?” In this way, students can share their joys, struggles, and difficulties in both academic and daily life with their mentors so that their mentors can pass on their experiences in various aspects. This often leads to the best and quickest solution.
I learned countless useful tips from my mentors, for which I am always grateful. Among them, I would rank the first three as dedication, perseverance and meticulous attention to detail. My mentors sparked my interest and determination in science and engineering. They also helped me maintain a high level of completeness and competitiveness in my work. Finally, they taught me many useful approaches to scientific writing and oral communication for different occasions, many of which I still use every day.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
In the past five years at INRS, I have established my group and completed the prototyping of several new computational-imaging systems. We are currently in discussion with various industrial partners to further develop them into commercial products. We are also collaborating with several groups to apply these systems in new optical physics and biomedicine applications. I look forward to seeing these inventions generate socio-economic impact and make new scientific discoveries.