Senior Member Insights: Tigran Baghdasaryan

Tigran Baghdasary photo

Tigran Baghdasaryan

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Tigran Baghdasaryan, a research professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Belgium, where he is affiliated with the Brussels Photonics (B-PHOT) research group. Baghdasaryan received his Ph.D. in engineering sciences at VUB in 2015. From 2016 to 2022 he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), Belgium.

Baghdasaryan has extensive expertise in the design, modeling, fabrication, characterization and prototyping of advanced optical sensors in standard and specialty fibers. His research focuses on fiber Bragg gratings, photonic crystal fiber sensors and femtosecond-laser micromachining of gratings and waveguides in specialty fibers. His most recent work involves two-photon polymerization-based direct laser writing of waveguide components and resonant structures for optical interconnect and sensing applications. He has authored and co-authored 22 peer-reviewed journal publications and more than 30 conference contributions.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

Being from a family of scientists, I was encouraged to choose this path from the early years. I remember that next to children’s books, my father was showing me popular physics literature explaining basic experiments. A black and white illustration of Galileo Galilei throwing cannonballs of different sizes from the leaning tower of Pisa is stuck in my mind to this very day. Later, I was selected for the Physics and Mathematics Specialized School (PhysMath) in Yerevan, Armenia, where the engaging and competitive environment made my mind firm on what I wanted to do in the future.

What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?

“ The moments when my experiments in the lab confirm my theoretical predictions and modeling results are the most exciting. ”

—Tigran Baghdasaryan

The moments when my experiments in the lab confirm my theoretical predictions and modeling results are the most exciting. In recent years, with the Brussels Photonics research group VUB (B-PHOT), we were able to build a full chain of competencies where we start from an idea and end up with a demonstration or a prototype. Making all the parts of this chain work together is satisfying to experience.

What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?

Given the number of possibilities that modern technological society offers, there is no universal recipe that works for all. It is important not to get lost among the possibilities and instead gradually converge on the ones that work for you. Personally, I prefer conferences and topical meetings. For me, combining narrow-field networking meetings with large congresses works the best. The former allow you to keep up with developments in your research domain, while the latter provide you with a birds-eye view of modern and future trends. 

What is the best career decision you have made and why?

For a very long time, my research career was focused on modeling and simulations. It was only after my Ph.D. that I decided to focus more on micro-fabrication and experiments. Despite many challenges and difficulties that I experienced in the beginning, my research now combines theory, modeling, fabrication, characterization and proof-of-concept demonstration. The potential impact of my scientific activities notably increased owing to this transformation.

What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?

While during bachelor’s, master’s, and even Ph.D. levels mostly technical skills are in focus, as an early-stage science leader, I see that leadership, supervision, team management, networking and project-writing skills are becoming critically important. One should also not forget the importance of following technological developments in your field and foreseeing future hot topics.   

Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific accomplishment that got you there?

If I go back to my student years, it was for sure the Erasmus Mundus scholarship that I was granted to pursue the master’s in photonics program in Sweden and Belgium. Junior and senior fellowships from the FWO were other important events that allowed me to develop as an independent scientist and focus on research topics of my interest. Since October 2022, I also got a research professor position at VUB B-PHOT, and I believe this is going to be another turning point in my career. 

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?

To be more ambitious and not doubt what you think is important. We are often too biased by the opinions of others, who will never understand the situation from our perspective. It is also important to formulate long-term goals, even if they do not seem realizable at this moment.  

What have you learned by being a mentor to others and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

“ In mentoring, only patience and consistency from both sides can bring desirable results. ”

—Tigran Baghdasaryan

Patience! Mentoring assumes that a person is supposed to learn and change, while it takes time. In mentoring, only patience and consistency from both sides can bring desirable results. I think this is also a good opportunity to name and thank a few of my career mentors, whose “patience” I enjoyed most. From the Armenian part of my career, I can name Rafik Hakobyan, Sarkis Hovakimyan and Hovik Baghdasaryan (who is my father, by the way), while from Belgium these are Thomas Geernaert, Francis Berghmans and Hugo Thienpont. 

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

Now I am active in two research tracks, which are direct laser writing of 3D polymer components for optical communication and sensing and femtosecond-laser micromachining of gratings and waveguides in specialty optical fibers. Within both directions, we are now actively generating results in the lab, and I am looking forward to seeing the work being shared with my peers. In the long term, I am very curious to see to what extent my works will shape the state-of-the-art in the domain.

Recently, I have also entered the game of project writing and pursuit of research funding, which is crucial for building a sustainable research team. I am happy to mention that the first project that I was granted will promote scientific collaboration between Belgium and Armenia. Within the Adjunct Research Professorship Program project granted for 5 years and together with my colleague Heidi Ottevaere, we will establish a group and a remote laboratory at Yerevan State University to develop fully 3D-printed lab-on-chip diagnostic platforms. I am looking forward to leading and co-leading this and many other projects to come.

Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?

Cycling in Flanders has been my hobby for a few years. The infrastructure in Belgium for that particular sport is just fantastic, while hilly terrains around Brussels, where I live, make it an enjoyable adventure. Reading is my long-time hobby, although I constantly struggle to find time for that. Franz Kafka and Haruki Murakami are currently the authors that I am engaging with most, while history books by Dan Jones, for instance, are another topic of my interest. For vacations, I enjoy road trips with my wife and kids. We recently explored Normandy, France, and the Black Forest, Germany, and there are more trips to come.

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