In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Katie Schwertz, a design engineering manager at Edmund Optics in Tucson, AZ. Schwertz received her B.S. in optics from the University of Rochester and her M.S. in optical sciences from the University of Arizona. She has more than a decade of industry experience in optical and optomechanical design.
Schwertz is a co-author of two books, Field Guide to Optomechanical Design and Analysis (2012) and Photonics Rules of Thumb, 3rd Ed. (2020). She is a senior member of SPIE and Optica and a current member of the SPIE Board of Directors (2020–2022). Schwertz is also an active member of the Optics Valley Committee within the Arizona Technology Council.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
If I look back on the things I enjoyed as a kid—building with k’nex blocks, working on logic puzzles, taking field trips to science museums—it seems obvious to me now that I would end up in an engineering field. In reality, though, I fell into it by accident in college!
I don’t have any engineers or scientists in my family, and it was never mentioned to me as an option in high school. When I went to the University of Rochester as a freshman, I heard about the field of optics and decided to take a 101 course. It was there that I learned about careers in science and engineering and fell in love with the idea that scientific principles explain our natural world and can be applied to develop technology. Hearing that optical engineering jobs were always in demand, and paid well, sealed the deal for me!
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
Edmund Optics supplies components and assemblies to nearly all high-tech markets, so I get to see products and technologies that are being developed for the future on a day-to-day basis, including biomedical instruments, autonomous technology, telecommunications, and more. I love working with other companies and engineers to find an optimal solution to their current challenges. How can we make their product a reality? Or how can we do it better, faster, or more cost-effectively? Seeing a product you helped develop be used out in the world is an incredible feeling.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
It’s hard when you move away from a natural built-in network of your peers during your school years to the working world where you’re exposed to a multi-generational and multi-disciplinary environment. You have to be a bit more active to maintain a professional network. Seek out local meetings or online forums where you can engage with others in your field. Look to see if your employer supports volunteer activities or traveling to events like professional conferences or trainings, and ensure that you make new contacts while there.
I would also suggest that early in your career, you say yes to every opportunity! Even seemingly small opportunities or commitments can lead to great connections. It can also help you figure out things you prefer not to do in your career, which is an important insight, especially early in your career.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I used LinkedIn a lot for staying connected professionally. I can share my professional activities with my network and stay up to date on the same for others. Conferences are always great for face-to-face meetings and have a lot of social networking time built into them. I find the most value in specific topical conferences since it will be easier to find and connect with people who are doing similar work to you.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Certainly, there are plenty of technical skills that are an important basis for any engineering field, including fundamental math and scientific principles. But skills like good communication, problem-solving, and a drive to understand the “why” of things are equally as valuable, in my opinion.
I would also recommend anyone interested in a career in optics and photonics get the opportunity to be hands-on with technology as early as possible. That could be through a research group, internship, shadowing opportunity, or just as a hobbyist in your own garage.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
That’s so difficult to say! Every decision, big and small, has contributed in some way to where I am. Looking back, though, I think finding a place to work that had more senior people in the role I was interested in and access to them while I was working on new projects was probably the best thing I could have done.
As an entry-level optical designer, I knew the basics from school, but learning to do optical and mechanical design in practice alongside people with significant experience (and willing to teach and mentor me) was a huge asset. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but oversight and guidance from more experienced engineers is a great way to begin your career.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Many people take long and winding roads to get where they are. If you’re discouraged about your current role, spend time thinking about what specifically you aren’t satisfied with, as well as what aspects of your work you really enjoy. Do you love your work but don’t enjoy the people you work with or for? Is the work not what you pictured when you first went into the field? Do you like days where you’re in the lab but find that most of your current work is at a computer (or vice versa)?
Once you’ve broken it down a little, see if you can look around for opportunities more in line with your strengths or favorite parts of your work. This is also a great opportunity to tap into your professional network. Having an informal chat to hear about other people’s jobs and experiences will help identify what is unique about your situation and what might be more universal.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
It’s okay to not know things. Ask questions and listen! I think it’s natural to want to appear that you are capable and knowledgeable, but you can do that while still acknowledging that there’s a lot more to learn.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
I keep to-do lists for everything, both professionally and personally. Those and my calendars keep my day-to-day life on track! In addition, I (mostly) keep to the inbox-zero method, so I don’t feel overwhelmed daily by emails.
I also feel strongly about setting boundaries and making time for my family and hobbies. I love to cook, bike, play volleyball, and travel. Those activities keep me grounded and fulfilled. I feel like a better and more productive employee when I make sure to also have time for myself.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
Anything to do with food! Maybe a celebrity chef with my own TV show or a restaurant reviewer/critic. I absolutely love to cook for other people and try new foods. When I’m traveling, you’ll usually find me asking the locals about their favorite spots.