In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Ni Chen, a researcher at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia. Chen received her B.S. degree in software engineering from Harbin Institute of Technology, China, in 2008. She received an M.S. in electrical engineering from Chungbuk National University, Republic of Korea, in 2010 and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Seoul National University, Republic of Korea, in 2014.
After graduating, Chen was a research scientist at the University of Hong Kong from 2014 to 2016; served as an associate professor with the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, from 2016 to 2017; and was a research assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea, from 2018 to 2019. Her research interests include computational optical imaging and display, particularly with differentiable optics.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I was fortunate as a child to play around with chemical instruments for experiments because of my father, a chemistry teacher … I believe [that] is my first experience working in science. In addition, my father constantly discussed natural phenomena in our daily lives and told me stories about science, which made me a science addict.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would they be most surprised by?
When I was younger, all I wanted to do was be a professor and live a calm life. In retrospect, it seems I was lazy and ignorant. I never considered my true passions, what comes after becoming a professor and what my life’s ultimate purpose is. Despite the fact that I am still midway through my research career, my interests have begun to pivot. I began to adore things I never imagined I’d love, and I began to experience life in many dimensions.
So if I were to meet my ten-years-younger self, she would be amazed that I became a tenacious achiever, fascinated with being a scientist and working on something that truly inspired me. Most importantly, she will encounter an unconventional thinker, lover and friend. I’m sure she’ll love me.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
If I were to sum it up in a single statement, it would be “attending conferences and using the internet.” Many of my collaborators I met at conferences, some of them became excellent friends, and we have been discussing research frequently.
Attend conference receptions, participate in as many conversations as possible, and make follow-ups. Aside from taking advantage of opportunities during conferences, another effective method is to use social media to get to know people and advertise your own work. You can also contact the authors whose publications you are interested in at any time.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
After receiving my bachelor’s degree, I switched my major from computer science to optical engineering, and for me, it was difficult to ramp up. But now, I value this experience even more. This diverse background greatly benefits me when working on multidisciplinary research because it helps me understand and communicate with both the computer and optics communities.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
I’ve been working on computational optical imaging, at the intersection of optics and computer science, where I believe cross-disciplinary thinking and skills are critical. Without knowing optics, I cannot understand the fundamental physics underlying the problems I wish to solve; conversely, I cannot solve the problems efficiently without sufficient computational skills. Knowing both thoroughly allows me to gain more from both independent and collaborative research. That’s why I can work on differentiable optical imaging, of which I’m pretty proud.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
In fact, there was no defining moment in my professional career. My research career used to be difficult because I had few ideas, wasn’t sure if they were worthwhile and couldn’t complete them. As my knowledge and expertise grew, the situation gradually improved. And one day, I suddenly realized that I have a lot of wonderful ideas and am capable of carrying them out. So I believe it was my strong willpower and love of science that brought me here.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student / early in your career?
I was in an under-represented environment when I was a student. I was unaware of the importance of getting socialized and being actively interactive with the local community, until my advisor told me I was shy when I graduated from Seoul National University. I started to realize this and began to improve my situation by setting a long-term goal, and I am now seeing some results. If I had a second chance, I would like to have been told to be confident and not isolate myself from the environment, academically and socially.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have many outstanding mentors, supervisors, and collaborators from whom I have learned and received help. Among all I have learned, mentorship is more about how the mentor inspires others indirectly than what the mentor explicitly teaches.
My Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Byoungho Lee, for example, has always influenced me, even after I graduated from Seoul National University. He is a trustworthy, punctual, and responsible person who is approachable, open-minded, and considerate. In terms of research, he adheres to integrity and embraces different disciplines. In terms of mentorship, he respects and treats all students equally, regardless of gender or ability.
In a nutshell, he doesn’t only say you should or shouldn’t do something but behaves as he asks. So when I conduct research, cooperate with others, mentor others, and serve the community, I unintentionally follow his style. All of these contribute to advancing my career development.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
As previously said, I used to believe that becoming a professor was my only goal. After having experienced more and more, I believe life could be multidimensional. At this moment, having a career that would help me achieve my scientific goals is my top priority; running my own lab and focusing only on research are viable options for me.
Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?
After work, I enjoy long-distance running and trekking, since they allow me to clear my mind and relax.
Correction, 4 October 2022, 10:30 EDT: The original version of this story misstated the location of Chungbuk National University; it is in the Republic of Korea, not China.