In this installment of senior member insights, OPN talks with Raluca Negres, a staff scientist in the materials science division of the physical & life sciences directorate at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) since 2007. Prior to her staff scientist position, Negres was a postdoctoral researcher at LLNL starting in 2004. Her research interests include laser-matter interactions, optical materials characterization, time-resolved imaging, ultrafast laser systems and statistical modeling. In addition to being an Optica Senior Member, Raluca is also a member of SPIE, and is currently serving on the international program committee for the its Laser Damage Symposium and organizing the annual Thin Film Laser Damage Competition.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
It was very gradual and by process of elimination. During my early education in Romania up to university, I was quite good at the exact sciences and liked the rules, laws, reasoning and deduction process. I also enjoyed technical drawing, foreign languages and grammar very much. Composition, poems and social sciences were not my favorites. I just wished we had more hands-on experience in physics and chemistry labs.
Given that you had to pass many written exams to be admitted into a university, and, at least for me, there was a lot of memorization in most other disciplines (law, economics, etc.), which didn’t appeal to me, I opted for physics and math. Later, I chose optics and spectroscopy, where the lab stuff came in, and I could play and perform experiments. It wasn’t until graduate school that I got my hands on the coolest and most fun laser toys, femtosecond tunable sources, that required fine precision in designing experiments and data analysis.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I have been working in the field of nonlinear optical materials characterization and laser-matter interactions for over 20 years. There are always new materials under development as dictated by extraordinary challenges to make better and more powerful lasers for various applications. I find that exciting and delightful, as I work in a very multi-disciplinary environment. I particularly took to data science and machine learning (I wish I had known of these tricks 20 years ago) and am constantly learning things related to engineering, systems engineering and material sciences that help me do my job well and add value to my team.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Find a good mentor, listen to what others enjoy in their job and how they got there. Your fellow classmates or co-workers from all sorts of backgrounds have good stories to tell. Attend conferences, volunteer with professional societies, go to career development seminars and social gatherings and always try to ask questions. Be a mentor yourself and share the knowledge. I was fortunate to be well supported during my graduate school years and was a regular at OSA (now Optica) meetings, and I found my current job at LLNL through WorkInOptics.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
Access to most scientific journals gives me the opportunity to stay up to date in my field. I particularly enjoy serving as a reviewer for several journals dedicated to optics, lasers, applied physics and machine learning.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Think hard and take time to ask the right questions before designing an experiment; persevere and pay attention to all details.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Go back to school, literally or not—with Coursera and similar online platforms, one can venture into different directions to figure out whether to pursue something. Be patient, take time to analyze and find out what is really bothering you or what gives you satisfaction. Talk to others—mentors, happy people—and design a pathway toward your goals.
What is one piece of great advice that you were given as a student/early in your career?
I had very good advice in general, lucky me. One great piece of advice that comes to mind was from my Ph.D. thesis advisor, Eric Van Stryland. I was offered a job in industry with great pay as I was nearing graduation, there was a big boom in jobs back in approximately 2000. Just about the same time, I was also recommended for a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Santa Barbara, USA, under the supervision of Alan Heeger, a Nobel Prize winner. My advisor was quick to say, “What is there to think about?” Sure enough, it was a great choice, and I loved the academic environment. If possible, don’t think of material things first. Choose to be happy and satisfied in your job.
What has been the most motivating factor throughout your career?
The company of smart people, challenging discussions, friendly competition and camaraderie at work.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
I try to shy away from multi-tasking as much as possible. I dedicate the most productive time of the day to an important problem, priority one on my list, and only that. When stuck, I take long walks to talk or think it through or put the problem aside for a few days.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would she be most surprised by?
I would be surprised that I still enjoy working in the lab or writing a paper and leading a technical project rather than taking on management roles. I am still happy with my research job at least 50% of the time.