In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Nicolaie Pavel, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Laser, Plasma, and Radiation Physics, Magurele, Romania, since 1990. Pavel graduated in July 1990 from the Faculty of Physics, University of Bucharest, Romania. In 1997, he received a Ph.D. in optics, spectroscopy and lasers from the Institute of Atomic Physics, Bucharest; he habilitated in 2013.
Pavel has experience designing various diode-pumped solid-state lasers, in areas including Nd-vanadate microchip lasers; Nd-based lasers pumped directly into the emitting level; obtaining buried, depressed-cladding waveguide lasers using a direct fs-pulse laser-writing technique; and high-peak-power passively Q-switched Nd:YAG/Cr4+:YAG lasers, with applications in laser ignition for passenger-car gasoline engines. Pavel is a member of Optica and SPIE. Since July 2020, he has been an associate editor of the Optics Express journal.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I could say that my interest in science in general, but physics in particular, was instilled in me in the physics classes I took as a high-school student. I remember the experiments of mechanics, optics and electricity to which we were all attracted by a young professor, a recent graduate of the Faculty of Physics at the University of Bucharest. Then—as a funny part—I tell you that I didn’t know how to answer the first question I was asked in my first high-school physics class. This situation was an impetus for the question: What do you want to do in life? I made the decision then: I have to go to the Faculty of Physics!
Then I think I also owe my interest in the technique to my grandparents. They both did woodwork (doors, windows, chairs, cabinets or barrels for alcohol) or repaired various things for the villagers (umbrellas, clocks, various small machines). I could say that until the age when I went to school, I had a happy childhood around them.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I am currently working on several topics, but the most interesting is the laser ignition of fuel mixtures, mainly in gasoline car engines. It is an interesting subject which combines mechanics with physics and optics. At the same time, it is a rather difficult subject, even delicate, in the sense that research in this direction is quite expensive. We hope, however, to obtain results of interest both to science and to the environment and society.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
It’s a difficult question, and I’m not a good teacher or adviser, unfortunately (and I admit that). I think that a student should make some decisions about his profession during his student life. He could then earn a master’s degree in collaboration between a university and a research institute. Depending on the results, expectations and objectives, he may continue with a Ph.D. internship and then decide whether to pursue university life or continue to work in the research institute.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I try to be present with communications at conferences; it is the best opportunity to exchange ideas with people you know, meet new people and keep up with the achievements in the field. Then, during this pandemic, I attended many webinars (and young people should not miss these events). I try to read to keep up with the articles published in the field (and here I say, very seriously, that Optica journals are a main source of information for me).
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Again, a difficult question, hard to answer! I met people with average results in college but who became excellent researchers. I think the most important thing is to do what you love in life. You have to ask yourself questions, answer these challenges and accept the unpleasant answers; have the power to understand that your work has an impact on society. You have to be prepared to give up certain things (sometimes experiments take a long time); you have to know how to work with people; you must have skills for experimental work.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
When I graduated from the faculty in 1990, I joined the institute. Then, in 1996, I decided to apply for a scholarship in Japan at Fukui University. It was, I think, the best decision of my career! I had the chance to work in a science-friendly setting with special people (Prof. Takao Kobayashi and Prof. Takunori Taira), all of whom were important for my later career. Then, in 2005–2007, I had the opportunity to work with Prof. Günter Huber of Hamburg University. In the end, a good decision was to return to the institute after 2006, trying to apply in my work what I learned from these internships abroad.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Don’t be afraid of change! If the current job does not bring you the expected satisfaction … make the decision to carefully analyze what you are doing to understand why you are not getting results and what can be done to rectify the situation. Try to be self-critical but with a positive outlook! If you think that another job suits you better, do not hesitate to make the decision to follow another path in life.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
I tried to make things so that I was happy with myself and those around me. I don’t know if I missed any advice ... but I really wish I knew how to play the guitar!
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
Again, a delicate question ... especially since I’m not a very communicative person. I don’t like to leave things unfinished ... so if something goes wrong, I analyze the situation, let some time pass, then try again ... My hope is that a break will help me see things from a different perspective and that I will find a solution. However, discussions with colleagues in the research group are essential for good results and achieving the goals.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
I would have liked to be a sailor, it was a dream I had in primary school. But now I am convinced that I have made the best choice for myself!