Samuel Serna Otalvaro
In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Samuel Serna Otalvaro, an assistant professor at Bridgewater State University (BSU),USA, since 2019 and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. Serna received his degree in physics engineering from the National University of Colombia, Sede Medellin, in 2010.
He went on to get a double master’s degree in 2013 from the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, Germany, in photonics and the Institute d’Optique Graduate School Paris, France, in optics, matter and plasmas, receiving the Erasmus Mundus Master scholarship: Optics in Science & Technology-OpSciTech. During these studies, he worked in digital in-line holography, diffractive optical elements and integrated photonic devices. He also studied three years of law school to explore his passion for philosophy and political sciences.
Serna earned his Ph.D. in 2016 at the University of Paris Sud, France, and was a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (C2N-Université Paris-Sud-Université Paris-Saclay), France, where he designed, fabricated and characterized passive silicon photonics structures and developed novel techniques to test and exploit their third-order nonlinear susceptibilities. He was a postdoctoral associate at MIT, where he explored novel hybrid devices in the integrated photonics platform for telecom and mid-IR functionalities.
Serna, BSU and MIT are part of the LEAP network, bringing industry, government and academia together for the use of integrated photonics and optical technologies. He is creating a unique program for photonics and optical engineering and working on different grants on packaging, sensing, quantum and nonlinear phenomena, education and microchip-manufacturing sustainability.
He is an Optica senior member and 2019 ambassador and a 2023 SPIE Editorial board member.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
What initially drew me to science was the opportunity to explore the laws of nature and understand how they work. As a person who has always been curious about the world around me, the chance to develop a deeper understanding of how things worked was truly captivating. Moreover, the ability to use this knowledge to co-create new devices with people from all backgrounds that could benefit people from all walks of life added a social and cultural component to my interest in science.
I was also fascinated by the challenge that comes with solving complex problems and gaining new insights into the workings of the world at large. The idea of playing at the boundary between the known and unknown is what makes science so exciting and full of possibilities.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
One of the most exciting aspects of my current work is the ability to create from scratch a state-of-the-art photonics characterization laboratory and a unique undergrad program in photonics and optical engineering. Having the opportunity to bring my research and pedagogic ideas to life and create something that can make a lasting impact on the community is truly exhilarating.
Furthermore, my work is made even more thrilling by the flexibility of my research and the support and discussion spaces I have with colleagues in France, Colombia and the US. Collaborating with professionals from diverse backgrounds and perspectives is key to improving our scientific knowledge, and the international network I’ve created, which was extended as an Optica Ambassador, provides invaluable resources and support.
“ By learning and discovering new things while challenging unjust social and academic structures that hold back underrepresented groups, I hope to be a part of creating a more concrete inclusive and just scientific community. ”
—Samuel Serna Otalvaro
In addition to creating new programs and research opportunities, I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists. By learning and discovering new things while challenging unjust social and academic structures that hold back underrepresented groups, I hope to be a part of creating a more concrete inclusive and just scientific community. This passion for social justice and scientific progress drives me in my work every day and makes even the most challenging aspects of research well worth the effort.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
I am fascinated by the history of science and the context in which scientists developed their ideas. Before, you needed to be part of a selected group in a very specific geographic place to participate in state-of-the-art discussions and use cutting-edge materials and equipment.
Now, we have improved communication devices and interconnection so that we can participate in remote conferences, read papers before they are published (not to mention the obsolescence of printed versions), interact via video calls with colleagues from everywhere in the world, and ship samples and equipment (although we need more work here). So, I encourage early-career professionals to use all of these networks to be on top of the discussions and serve as bridges between well-established professionals and the new generations.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
Usually, the best decision is the hardest. In my case, it was to leave my country to study somewhere else. My learning was not only about science but more importantly about other ways of living, other languages, other food and other histories. Since then, I cannot stop traveling as there are so many things to learn and so many amazing people out there. I invite everyone to travel and have an open mind.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Creating a lab for integrated photonics circuit characterization and an education program is an exciting endeavor that demands a unique combination of skills. It requires the willingness to learn new concepts while having a robust foundation in math and physics. However, the research and teaching processes must always be coupled with humility and a continuous desire to learn from others.
In summary, thriving in this career requires a curious mind, a passion for learning, and a value of research and teaching independence over salary.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
I relocated to the United States with the intention of improving my CV and eventually landing a job back in France. During my postdoctoral research at MIT, I pondered my options and discussed potential opportunities with close friends and colleagues. Though I was presented with countless pieces of advice and suggestions, a rather unconventional prospect in photonics caught my attention.
Despite being an unheralded university in optics, I seized the opportunity to join the faculty and launch a pioneering program in photonics engineering. Since embarking on this journey almost four years ago, I have encountered a myriad of challenges and gained invaluable knowledge while collaborating with brilliant individuals.
Although my trajectory veered from my original short-term plan, I approach each day with a sense of purpose, eager to learn and impart knowledge to my students and perform exciting research in my own lab. I feel grateful to have created a robust network with researchers and professionals around the world, as we explore the latest concepts and engage in cutting-edge experimentation. Independently, my ultimate goal is to expand access to all these technologies and spaces to Latin American. And my current position is an excellent bridge.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
One piece of advice I wish I had earlier in my career, as hard as it might sound, would be to be prepared to face discrimination and systemic barriers. I experienced that firsthand throughout my journey in Europe and North America, where I faced discrimination in accessing opportunities and a lot of barriers regarding my immigration status, particularly being from Colombia.
Unfortunately, these issues are often ignored in the scientific community and are significant obstacles for those trying to progress in their careers. However, I am hopeful and actively participating in discussions and actions in the US, where more colleagues and institutions are recognizing that more needs to be done, learning about us and our contexts, and trying to remove those barriers for women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and other unfairly underrepresented groups.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
Curiosity is the main driving force to do research. But also, being aware of the context and interests of the mentees. Every person’s history has something to teach you, there is no recipe for good advice. Mentoring is a two-way process, with the mentor also learning from the mentee. I’ve found that listening and learning from my mentees’ unique experiences and perspectives has helped me evolve as an advisor. The best mentorship experiences I’ve had were with mentors who took a genuine interest in my personal story and aspirations. Their guidance and support have helped me develop professionally and personally.
“ Science is for everyone and made by everyone. A simple message I try to communicate to my students not only verbally but with actions is: you belong here. ”
—Samuel Serna Otalvaro
Science is for everyone and made by everyone. A simple message I try to communicate to my students not only verbally but with actions is: you belong here. We are just learning about how pervasive the stereotype of a scientist is and how many young students do not follow the path of science because the spaces are not constructed for diverse groups. As a mentor, I want to help mitigate all those barriers my mentees have. It is not only about including all the mentees in the discussions but to be aware of how were the spaces built to have those conversations and the opportunities they have to excel in my research group.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
One of my main projects right now is at the forefront of microchip manufacturing, in particular, working with many multidisciplinary teams toward sustainability. This has become an urgency that we cannot ignore anymore, and I hope to create a long-lasting and beneficial impact in our field.
Furthermore, I recognize the power of public policy to facilitate academic cooperation and promote global scientific partnerships. As an advocate for international collaboration, I am looking to learn more and create programs to ease customs of equipment and samples as well as establish more fair immigration processes for scientists.
In addition to a photonics engineering program, I plan to create other cutting-edge programs, such as quantum technologies and novel light-matter interactions where all sorts of students could become experts in these fields. By serving as a bridge between academic institutions and industry, my lab will help to test and improve prototypes in a collaborative environment.
Finally, I am committed to sharing my knowledge and resources with others in order to promote scientific progress in particular in Latin America. To this end, I plan to create programs and spaces in photonics that will benefit youth in the region. By investing in the next generation of scientists, we can create a better, more sustainable future for all.
Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?
In addition to my academic pursuits, I find joy in a variety of activities outside of the lab and the classroom. Biking and gardening, among other outdoor activities, are particularly important to me, as they allow me to recharge and find balance in my life. They provide a sense of connection to nature and the world around me.
Reading literature and philosophy is another passion of mine. I find that immersing myself in great works of fiction or engaging with challenging philosophical concepts can reframe my objectives and help me organize my thoughts more effectively. By broadening my perspective and challenging my assumptions, I am better equipped to tackle the complex problems that I encounter in my work.
Finally, I value spending time with my family and friends. They are the safety net that I rely on to provide support and encouragement when I need it most. In today’s fast-paced world, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of human connection. So, as you are reading this, I invite you to let your closest know your appreciation for their existence.