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Senior Member Insights: Anne-Sophie Poulin-Girard

Anne-Sophie Poulin-Girard

Anne-Sophie Poulin-Girard in front of the Terrasse Optique. The Terrasse Optique is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between Université Laval students in physics and architecture. Its goal is to highlight the importance of light and spotlight the optics and photonics industry in Québec City. For more information on the project, visit www.facebook.com/terrasseoptique/.

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Anne-Sophie Poulin-Girard, a research associate in optical engineering at the Center for Optics, Photonics and Lasers, Université Laval, Canada. Poulin-Girard received her master’s and Ph.D. in physics from the Université Laval. Her current work focuses on metrology and optical engineering for various fields of application, including astronomical instrumentation. She is passionate about training the next generation of scientists and engineers and is also involved in the optics and photonics education community.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

In 10th grade, I met physics, electricity and magnetism, and a very thorough teacher sold me on it in an instant. It was obvious it was my calling, and I decided I would pursue a Ph.D. in physics. I was 15 and never regretted it. However, I do not think it was obvious to people in my surroundings or to me that I had a passion for science before that moment. But I remember several little things from an early age.

In elementary school, I was a big fan of herbariums. I also had a rock collection my mother bought me during a vacation at sea. I would look at it often to find differences and similarities between the stones. I remember reading, again and again, a children’s book on the peregrine falcon. I was also fascinated by the double-page on the solar system in a children’s visual encyclopedia.

Every time I was presented with science, I had a blast. That is why I think it is important to expose young children to science, but also art and literature and all the other really cool things there are to be curious about.

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

Ten years ago, I was just starting my Ph.D. and would be very surprised that I have not transitioned to a job in industry. I was so convinced that was what I was going to do right after my Ph.D. The truth is, I enjoy research a lot, and my colleagues are the absolute best. I work as the industrial research chair in optical design at Université Laval, and we collaborate with industry on several research and development projects. In a way, it is the best of both worlds.

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

Some early-career professionals are highly skilled at networking. I would be happy to exchange tips with them.

If you feel that your networking strategies are not successful, one good way to connect is to take interest in someone beyond their technical expertise. This increases your chances of finding common interests to start a professional relationship. And, if you feel you are not comfortable in networking situations, I am sharing these tips from one very insightful person. Instead of focusing on the discomfort and feeling clumsy, ask yourself, What would make me more comfortable?

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

This story starts with the worst career decision I have ever made. I was offered an opportunity and was unsure about making the move. However, the unanimous opinion was that it was a major thing. Unfortunately, it was not.

Yet, my worst career decision paved the way for my best career decision: simply trusting my own instinct. I still look for key people’s input when I have to make important career decisions and certainly consider their points of view. However, when I have strong feelings towards something but cannot quite rationalize them, I make sure to consider that as well in my decision-making process. 

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

It is great to be a technical expert, to have know-how. It is even more important that people want to work with you because you are resourceful, you can communicate your ideas; you are a team player; you are kind with your colleagues; you can adapt to situations and learn new skills, thanks to your curiosity. In my opinion, any volunteering experience—moreso than most work experiences—can help you to develop those highly sought-after qualities in your very personal way.

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

Getting involved with professional societies’ student chapters in 2009 was a major turning point in my career-to-be. I was starting my master’s project at the time. I saw an ad on my undergrad student association poster board: the local outreach event Photonics Games was looking for new committee members. I joined the committee and later the optics and photonics student chapters as outreach coordinator.

My engagement with the broader optics and photonics community through professional societies gave me incredible opportunities to travel, build long-lasting relationships with fantastic scientists from all horizons, explore new responsibilities, and undertake exciting challenges. It has been propelling me ever since.

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

It will not go as planned, and it will be perfectly fine.

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

From the people who helped shepherd my career, I have learned that your path is the perfect path. When I was doing my undergraduate studies, we would often be told that the ultimate goal was to be a professor in a university, and that was the way to succeed in research. I personally do not believe in the only-one-path-to-success theory. I was lucky to meet people very early in my career who showed me by their own example that there are so many ways to be successful in science.

In the same way, as a mentor, I try to be genuine with my qualities and my flaws. I do not pursue being a good example to follow, but rather to help others to follow their own path and passions, as I am doing myself.

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

I feel that many opportunities await me in the future, and I look forward to seeing where they will lead me.

In the short term, I will lead the commissioning of the back-end of NIRPS (Near-Infrared Planet Searcher) at the ESO Observatory at La Silla in the Atacama Desert during the first half of 2022. I was involved in the in-lab optical integration, alignment, verification and test phase of the project, and I have learned so many unexpected things along the way. Members of the team from Canada and Switzerland will be traveling to Chile, so the instrument can see its first light later this year. I am eager to undertake my technical responsibilities as an optics and metrology specialist but also to stay on-site for the entire mission to coordinate our efforts and support the other team members.

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

I like keeping myself busy. I am interested in anything that can expand my horizons. I am proud to say I now speak Spanish, my third language. I am also pretty pleased with my garden and all the horticulture knowledge I have gained in the past five years.

One of my greatest passions is music. I have been playing the saxophone since I was nine years old. I have a college degree in music, and I had the opportunity to play in the wind orchestra of the university’s Faculty of Music during my undergraduate studies. For many years now, I have been a member of a local wind orchestra. I like that it requires technical abilities and focus in the moment, but still, emotions are present when you play along with the other musicians.

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