In this installment of senior member insights, OPN talks with Amalia Martínez-García, a researcher and head of the Optical and Mechanical Testing Lab at Centro de Investigaciones en Óptica (CIO), Mexico. Martínez-García received her Ph.D. in Optics at CIO. She has been a visiting researcher at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile, the School of Engineering at the University of Basilicata, Potenza, Italy and Utsunomiya University, Japan.
Martínez-García is a member of the National System of Researchers (Level III), the Mexican Academy of Optics (AMO), the International Society of Optomechatronics (ISOT), the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE), and Optica. Her research interests focus on the field of optical metrology.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
When I was a child, I felt an itch to see through marbles. I wondered about the colors of the rainbow, about the relative movement of clouds as I looked at them while going back and forth on a swing, about spinning a top on its tip (something really complicated if not done at the right speed or the perfect angle), about the twinkling of the stars, about life itself.
When I entered primary school, I was very excited about mathematics. I remember how happy I was when I was able to solve division and square root operations, which was a great challenge for me.
Later, in junior high school, I had the chance to observe the structure of an onion using a microscope, learning that there is a lot of information beyond what our eyes see. Then, in high school, my enthusiasm continued, but it was for chemistry. Going to the laboratory and doing experiments, along with the formulas shown on the blackboard—it all seemed magical.
Then, already in college and convinced, I decided to study physics, although I was undecided as to whether I should pursue a master’s degree in nuclear physics or optics. Finally, I decided to go for a master’s in optics and then continue with a doctorate in this same branch of physics.
I am very enthusiastic about the various applications of optics and how one never stops learning.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would she be most surprised by?
It was wonderful to be close to the student chapters in manufacturing ultraviolet light cabinets for the disinfection of masks arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, a great worldwide project supported by Optica that brought together students, each with different skills. Given the different restrictions on access to official institutions, other workspaces were sought. I never imagined seeing students working with great enthusiasm on their assembly in the garage of my house.
Another experience was working on the logistics of monitoring hospitals that might be interested in getting the cabinets, which involved interacting with colleagues from other areas, in this case, medical and administrative. It is interesting to see how optics contributed to trying to alleviate this great health problem. Every action, however small, can add to the success of such efforts.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Participate in technical committees involved in the organization of meetings, as well as in the different activities of the student chapters. Present work in congresses and carry out pre-doctoral stays. This is in addition to taking advantage of the digital means of communication provided by the internet.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
To leave the place where one usually lives in order to study and not pay attention when people tell you that a woman is not fit for studying. All this leads to becoming an independent, organized and responsible person.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
To be proficient in a foreign language, such as English, and programming in general, and to have critical thinking, creativity and initiative.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
When I was working toward my doctorate, in addition to that academic work, I was the mother of two little girls. I felt that I was not going to make it and worried about the time I had to earn my degree. Then, I thought, “this is a hill where I am carrying a backpack with extra weight; it is logical that I will not reach the end in the same time as other students who are not carrying the same load.” Although it took me an extra year to earn my Ph.D., I came to terms with it, for I believe that each of us goes through different circumstances, making it difficult to reach the same goals at the same time. We have to be understanding with ourselves, as well as with others.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Always strive for academic improvement, no matter if you are a woman, and it will be achieved through effort, will and perseverance. It is never too late to make a difference, and learning is achieved when one does things for oneself.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
As a mentor, I have learned to be patient with and confident in my pupils because sometimes, students have personal problems that do not allow them to progress academically. I value their work very much because I know that, thanks to them, we have been able to reach many goals as a group. Actually, one never stops being a student; one is always learning something new in life.
From my mentors, I have learned from their enthusiasm and support, and from others, I have learned to be strong and prepared for the real demands of life.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
To have interdisciplinary collaborations where each of us contributes the experience acquired to complete a project that greatly impacts the field of health or industry. I also believe it is time to support more young people and supply what they need to follow and fulfill their dreams of improvement, regardless of their field of interest, but in particular, those interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?
I like to go on a leisurely walk every day, and on vacation, I discover places where you can observe nature. These activities relax me and keep me physically active.