In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Ajanta Barh, an experimental physicist and associate professor at DTU Electro, Technical University of Denmark. Barh obtained a Ph.D. in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India, in 2015. Afterward, she did postdoctoral research at DTU Fotonik, Denmark, (2016–2019) and ETH Zurich, Switzerland, (2019–2023) before joining DTU Electro as an associate professor in May 2023. Her current research interests include mid-infrared photonics, ultrafast lasers, nonlinear optics and related applications.
Barh has authored or coauthored more than 90 peer-reviewed journal and conference publications. She is a senior member of Optica, and she was elected chair (2018–2020) and vice chair (2021–2023) of the Optica Nonlinear Optics Technical Group. She has been a member of the program committees for international conferences, including IEEE WRAP (2017, 2019), Ultrafast Optics (UFO) XIII (202 –2023) and the Photonics Global Conference (2023). She served as a technical external reviewer of various European research grants and several Optica student grants. Barh is a recipient of the DFF-Sapere Aude research leader grant (2022).
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I was a curious and competitive child, and by the end of my high school studies, I was sure to pursue physics. The logical approach in science resonated well with my curious mind. I was also lucky to have great physics teachers, who contributed to shaping my academic path. During my Ph.D., I engaged in international collaborative research, and since then, I have consistently pursued research opportunities in an international setting.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
“An academic job requires multitasking, gives independence and always puts me in a situation to do something new” —Ajanta Barh
I am an experimental physicist. Currently, I am more involved in developing novel ultrafast lasers to address some of the societal challenges including climate change, medical health and, in general, optical sensing. This field of research gives me joy and motivates me every day to apply my research to advance both science and society. In general, an academic job requires multitasking, gives independence and always puts me in a situation to do something new—that’s what is the most interesting and exciting to me.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
To begin with, it's important to keep in mind that you're not the sole introvert in the room! While there are individuals who are naturally extroverted, many others require an extra dose of courage to initiate conversations or make their first approach. My suggestion is to try, try, try—it will work, for sure. For me, successful networking relies on quality rather than quantity—meaning I like to establish connections that have the potential for a long-term commitment or collaboration.
Another important aspect is bringing versatility into your network. For instance, establish connections with people across diverse academic levels, backgrounds or even outside academia—that often adds a broader perspective to our work. Finally, visibility is important. Try to be proactive by becoming a part of an organizing committee or review board, for example.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
There are two aspects of staying active and engaged in the field—one is how much I know about others’ work, and the second is how much others know about mine. I try to achieve these by surfing through new and relevant publications and attending key conferences, including any social or networking events.
I am also a member of various professional networks and online magazines and news websites. I get regular notifications for new articles, webinars and blogs—that keeps me updated as well. Also, I take part in local university events to learn what is happening around me, within and outside my field.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
A quick Google search returns you five key skills for an academic career: time management, critical thinking, technical skills, motivation and cooperation. I guess these skills are required in any other career as well. For me, an academic career has needs beyond those skills, such as multitasking and innovation—one needs to generate lots of ideas to acquire funding, but the success rate is low. That means commitment and resilience are crucial.
“Finally, be ready to move—yes, mostly in the beginning phase, you need to move to get better offers or opportunities.” —Ajanta Barh
On top of that, such a career involves a lot of voluntary work—meaning it is time consuming, which you cannot avoid. Finally, be ready to move—yes, mostly in the beginning phase, you need to move to get better offers or opportunities. So, overall, this is a high-energy and time-seeking career, but the independence and professional output you get give you immense pleasure in the end.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
I can highlight two of my decisions here. One is moving away from home—after high school, my passion for physics brought me to different cities and countries. That first move from my hometown was extremely painful. However, I now experience immense joy and satisfaction as I reflect upon the multitude of societies, cultures and countries I have had the privilege of experiencing—it’s a treasure to me.
The other is shifting from theoretical to experimental research. My Ph.D. project was excellent; it involved designing novel optical fibers and light sources for a variety of applications. It was mostly numerical and theoretical. I could predict several new schemes and highlight the pathways for progress, but I was missing the final verification part. Then I decided to join an experimental group for my postdoc, where I could use my strong numerical background to design the overall setup and, in the end, could verify my hypothesis experimentally. This satisfies me and I persistently pursue research in this manner.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Currently, our society is far from the old standards and progressing very fast. Such a system requires a dynamic mentality and flexibility. So it’s a much better time for changing jobs or career goals if that is needed. That said, I am not saying one should change jobs whenever something goes wrong—rather, after putting in all possible effort (including narrowing down the problems, discussing with others, etc.), if it is still not working, then it is time to let it go and venture out for plan B or plan C.
“In moments of doubt, revisit the decision-making process, make a choice, own it, nurture it and live by it.” —Ajanta Barh
In the end, everyone’s life is different and personal satisfaction and happiness are all that matter. In one sentence—in moments of doubt, revisit the decision-making process, make a choice, own it, nurture it and live by it.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Manage your emotions—it’s common to link our emotions to any ups and downs in the workplace, such as when progress stalls, facing rejection or encountering arguments. That leads to subjective decision-making and very often drains our energy and enthusiasm. It negatively impacts our personal life as well. Emotions are not inherently bad or irrelevant, but maintaining control over them is crucial. It enables us to handle situations objectively. In truth, many problems resolve themselves over time. I wish I had known this earlier, and I continue to learn and grow in this aspect.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
Seeking assistance when I find myself stuck on a problem for an extended period. I ask for constructive feedback (including criticism) from individuals I trust completely, and I genuinely consider their insights. Additionally, I have developed a habit of stepping away from a task if I've exerted considerable effort and it isn't progressing as desired. After taking a sufficient break, I return to the task with a fresh mind and renewed energy—this approach usually proves effective.
Some general recommendations—be open-minded, shortcuts do not work in the long run, cultivate resilience and commit to your work. Simultaneously, I take pleasure in pursuing my hobbies and spending quality time with my family and friends. These activities allow me to clear my mind, relax and approach new challenges with a refreshed perspective.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
I have a deep passion for adventure and an innate curiosity about life and nature. If I could not be a scientist today, I believe I would pursue a fulfilling career as a nature photographer. My dream job would be to join the National Geographic team for a nature documentary.