In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with María Viñas-Peña, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine–Harvard Medical School (USA). Viñas-Peña completed her undergraduate studies in optics and optical engineering at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), developed her predoctoral work at the Visual Optics & Biophotonics Lab of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Madrid, and obtained her Ph.D. in physics at UCM in 2016.
Her research focuses on the study of the physics of vision and novel ocular treatments through the use of different biophotonics technologies (adaptive-optics visual simulation, optical coherence elastography, SHG microscopy). Her work has led to significant contributions in the form of high-impact publications, conference presentations and technology transfer in the areas of chromatic aberrations in phakic and pseudophakic eyes and their impact on vision; optical, visual and neural effects of astigmatism, high-order aberrations and presbyopic corrections, simulated with adaptive optics. She is also a founding member of the spinoff company 2EyesVision which develops clinical visual simulators.
Viñas-Peña has also received recognition from scientific societies, including Optica and ARVO. In particular, she was elected an Optica Ambassador in 2019. She is past president of IOSA (Institute of Optics Optica Student Chapter), where among a wide range of activities, she authored a very successful book of optical experiments (Discovering Light: Fun Experiments with Optics). Currently, she is the chair of the Visual Sciences Committee of the Spanish Optical Society and a member of the Applications of Visual Sciences Optica Technical Group.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I believe curiosity and a problem-solving-oriented mind are two characteristics that better describe me, even when I was a small child. I was always very interested in discovering the purpose of things and fascinated to understand the amazing spectacles in nature and the human body.
In particular, the eye, a fascinating combination of biological and optical engineered systems, is a fantastic example of the wonders of optics in nature. How the brain sees the world through a clearly imperfect optical system while adapting continuously to changes within the eye and the surrounding environment is a process that we don’t fully understand yet.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I work on visual optics and biophotonics applications in the eye, to understand the visual process and develop novel diagnostic tools and technologies, which allow us to fully understand the process of vision and fight some of the most impairing blind-leading pathologies. In particular, myopia, the excessive eye growth in the axial direction, resulting in blurred retinal images and poor vision, has increased worldwide dramatically in the last few decades and is one of the leading causes of vision impairment and blindness.
To understand the trigger of myopia and develop viable novel treatments, multi-approach research is needed, which means multidisciplinary research teams are the best option to tackle this problem. This means working with researchers with different backgrounds, origins and ways of thinking, which leads to great brainstorming and is the seed for successful research projects. That is really exciting.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Don’t be shy. When you are a first-time attendee in a conference, you sometimes are overwhelmed to meet in person all those renowned researchers whose papers you have read several times, and miss the opportunity to connect with them, propose your ideas or challenge them with questions after a talk. Don’t be shy. Grow your network and try to interact with them. The imposter syndrome sometimes holds us back from seizing good opportunities.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
I have been very lucky in my career. I joined a highly multidisciplinary, highly international research group, where I later did my Ph.D. under Prof. Susana Marcos’s supervision, which paved the way for me to start my research career. I would say that joining that research group and having Prof. Marcos as a mentor was the best career decision I made as a master’s student.
Later on, getting awarded an ERC Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship and joining the Wellman Center for Photomedicine–Massachusetts General Hospital & Harvard Medical School was a pivotal movement in my career. I moved to Boston from Spain with my family, husband and baby daughter, which was a big effort for all, personally and professionally. But it has given me the freedom to go out of my comfort area, explore other areas of research and try crazy ideas in the lab—definitely a great career decision.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
One of the great things about finishing your Ph.D. is that you generally acquire excellent technical skills in your field, which will become the base of your scientific core. But, as soon as you have good technical expertise, I think you also need to understand globally the research questions you want to address. Therefore, a deep knowledge of your research field is needed when you want to jump to the next level in your career.
Moreover, any Ph.D. student also needs to acquire a certain number of related soft skills: proposals/applications writing, public speaking, networking, outreach, leadership skills, management skills, etc. In my opinion, a good researcher should have a good balance between all these aspects.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Be patient. Things in the lab can get tricky sometimes. Experiments can fail spectacularly. A career path is never a straight line. I am still learning about that one! A research career is tough and long, so be patient.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
I have had good mentors, and I have been a mentor. Not sure if a good one. But I have always tried to teach good technical skills in the lab and help my mentees get visibility by supporting them in all types of occasions (i.e., support for fellowships, applications, etc.). It’s not always easy to manage the pressure to get results, publish, get funding and supervise students with very different levels of commitment. I have learned that I need to be more patient.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I would like to build my own lab and start investigating all the ideas I have been forming in my mind during different collaborations with other researchers.
Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?
I love reading. Since I was a tiny child, it has been my favorite thing in the world. I remember reading all the books in my house and in surrounding libraries. My favorites are history and politics. I miss having enough time to read three books at the same time. It’s my way of disconnecting totally from the outside world.