Georgios E. Arnaoutakis
In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Georgios E. Arnaoutakis, a researcher at the Power Plant Synthesis Lab, Department of Mechanical Engineering of the Hellenic Mediterranean University in Crete, Greece. Previously, Arnaoutakis was a research fellow at the National Solar Energy Center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, where he earned a postdoctoral fellowship at the Jacob Blaustein Center for Scientific Cooperation.
He was awarded his Ph.D. in 2015 from Heriot-Watt University, UK, funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Council (EPSRC) and then worked at Edinburgh Instruments Ltd, UK, as an applications & development scientist. Since 2018, he has been a visiting scientist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, both in Germany. During his research positions, he established or coordinated research laboratories, developing laser spectroscopy experiments and techniques for the modeling and characterization of energy conversion materials and optoelectronic and photothermal devices and systems.
Arnaoutakis’ research interests lie at the intersection of solar energy conversion, optics and photonics. These include energy conversion via photovoltaics and concentrating solar power, geometrical and luminescent concentration, as well as spectroscopy of materials and devices for solar energy conversion. He is a member of the International Solar Energy Society, and since 2013 he has been a peer reviewer for numerous scientific journals and grant programs on the topics of solar energy and materials science. Since 2020, he has served on the administrative executive boards of the Optica Technical Group: Optics for Energy and the Hiking Club of Agios Nikolaos, Crete.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
As an engineer by training, I initially spent a few years working in that industry after my degree. I gained valuable experience of specialized knowledge useful in engineering, as well as marketing. However, after a few years, something was telling me that there was more to learn.
I, therefore, decided to move abroad and pursue a master’s in science. This led me to new training and experience, and eventually, a master’s project on novel lanthanide materials for photovoltaics that helped a lot in sparking my curiosity. I was then introduced to many experimental methods and insights into new, for me, phenomena. Consequently, at the end of my master’s, I felt that I wanted to know more about what I was taught and decided to further pursue science through research.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I am very excited about our recent work on the two-photon upconversion threshold, the power density where a nonlinear optical process becomes linear, for solar energy applications! For this work, I earned a postdoctoral fellowship from the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Scientific Cooperation to characterize erbium-based upconverters under very high concentrations of sunlight.
This work is built on previous research on upconversion material structures with integrated solar concentrators. In our recent work, we found that the threshold does not agree with typical characterization under laser excitation. The difference can be related to additional processes available during broadband sunlight excitation and can lead to new applications for solar energy harvesting.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals
“There is a single tip that I cannot emphasize enough to early-career professionals: ‘Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people!’” —Georgios E. Arnaoutakis
Networking has been crucial at all stages of my science career. There is a single tip that I cannot emphasize enough to early-career professionals: “Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people”! For people in the engineering and physical sciences, we are taught to think a lot about problems and possible solutions. This may lead one to spend hours working in isolation, whilst forgetting about real life.
Luckily, in many cases, a colleague may have worked on a similar problem or may have come across a technique that could guide the next steps and get to the solution. But it’s not possible to access this help without talking to people. Advisors are a first good point of contact but are not the only ones. This conversation can be in the coffee room of the department, at a conference, via email, over chat or through other online platforms that emerged during the pandemic.
You will be surprised how eager people can be to help if given an interesting question or an important problem to solve. This hit me in one of the first steps in my research. I was working on programming a linear translation stage, but the stage could only understand a few commands, and I wanted to make it move exactly where I wanted. After several days of banging my head, I had the luck to get access to code for exactly what I was trying to do. Another researcher had programmed the same model and published their results a few years ago, which provided all the details to get in touch with them!
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Creativity is, in my opinion, the most useful skill. Coming up with simple ways to make things work is always appreciated in science and engineering. This can be in writing, designing or hands-on work. To this end, a solid mathematics foundation helps one rapidly build mental models.
Every day, a research lab faces multiple tasks, and skills such as communication, coordination and diligence can aid in managing them. The ability to listen and be kind to people is a positive force in a team. No one wants to work with people complaining all the time, but show me one person who hasn’t ever had a bad day!
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Discouragement is part of the equation! If everything was easy, it would not be interesting. A career path to me is like a hike. You start in the morning to delve into a new path, many times not completely prepared for what’s ahead of you. The first few steps can feel like a shock to the system. Soon enough you slowly start warming up, while you get the hang of the walking pace.
“Discouragement is part of the equation! If everything was easy, it would not be interesting.” —Georgios E. Arnaoutakis
Gradually you are able to climb to higher levels, while finding new areas and enjoying new surroundings. Maybe the route of the hike is not well designed, or maybe parts were eroded by a recent storm, but you use your navigation tools to find the path again.
And despite feeling alone sometimes, this is never the case. If you take a break and pay attention, you will notice that other forms of life crawl, swim or fly around you, all trying their best to fit into this constantly evolving route. A break can also help you forget about the end of the journey and just enjoy the hike. And who knows, you may make a few new friends and good co-walkers on your way who can make the trek feel like a breeze.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Things are rarely black or white. Under the same token, the question of, “academia or industry?” is not helpful. Why not try both? Of course, I am talking based on personal experience! After my Ph.D., I initially turned my search to academic positions. After several interviews, I eventually took an applications scientist position at Edinburgh Instruments Ltd.
This position not only offered me a decent salary soon after my Ph.D., but in the following two years, I earned valuable industry experience along with sales and marketing skills. Of course, the company valued transferring knowledge on materials science and new spectroscopy applications, while establishing a new applications lab. Exposure to cutting-edge research by visiting labs and traveling to universities was an added bonus that was very welcome. So why not give it a try? Maybe it is for you, maybe it is not, but you will never know until you try.
What has been the most motivating factor throughout your career?
I can’t say I have had one motivating factor throughout my career. What is most interesting to me is the constant flow of new knowledge. What excites me is making connections to prior knowledge and gaining a deeper but also broader understanding of the physical world.
“The fact that I could be working on the next big advancement is a great motivator for me, and the best way to do this is by exploring and not hesitating to try new things.” —Georgios E. Arnaoutakis
Another factor is curiosity. The fact that I could be working on the next big advancement is a great motivator for me, and the best way to do this is by exploring and not hesitating to try new things. During this exploration, however, I had to try the hard way several times and not take on just the easy answers. Exchanging knowledge and ideas that bring the best out of people and may bring forward a new advance and solve some of our many challenges is a strong motivation for me.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
A walk works like magic. Besides walking, music is always a good companion. Listening helps, and playing an instrument even more. Playing the piano or guitar refreshes my mind and gives me break, especially combined with sleep. It is a good way to release the pressure from a particular problem and who knows, come to an “aha” moment.
I had this happen at the end of the day. I was trying to sleep, and somewhere between half-sleeping and floating thoughts on bench designs and configurations, there it comes! One of these epiphanies woke me up to bring together an experimental setup for broadband excitation for the characterization of photoluminescence quantum yields made from off-the-shelf elements, presented in one of my first conferences and later a complete paper.
Organizational apps can help manage many tasks in a day, but there is a fine line between spending more time organizing than actually being productive. I like to keep in mind the Eisenhower matrix to prioritize tasks. As long as you can make a good estimation of the time required for each task and its urgency, everything important can fit. A good calendar can then help with reminders for the important but not so urgent tasks.
However, don’t be too demanding of yourself. One person can do anything but cannot do everything. Time is a limited resource, and coworkers can help with that. Plus, it is more fun working with others and exchanging tasks on work you are better at.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would he/she be most surprised by?
The places I have been and the people I have interacted with. Sometimes I think; what if I had stayed in one position and kept doing one thing or two? What if I put curious questions I had under the bed and sleep on it? I would never know!
And the funny thing is that one thing brings another. But something that is rarely seen in a curriculum vitae or even an online profile, is the time spent to achieve each task during a career. Real progress is always incremental; it comes in steps and not all steps are forward. Mistakes happen during this process and some steps backward may be needed to change direction. This is part of the challenge; a way to learn something new, which can be fun!