In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Nahid Talebi, an associate professor at Christian Albrechts University of Kiel, Germany, where she is a director of the Institute for Experimental and Applied Physics and chair of the AG Nanooptics group.
Talebi received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Tehran University, Iran, in 2011. During her studies, she visited the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, for seven months with a scholarship from the Max Planck Society. In 2012, she joined the Stuttgart Center for Electron Microscopy as an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow. She became a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in 2015, and in 2018, she received an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council.
Talebi’s work concerns exploring the interaction of electron beams with light and nanostructures, to both investigate fundamental quantum mechanical aspects of electron–light interaction and to propose and realize novel characterization techniques with electron beams.
She has drafted more than 70 papers in high-impact journals and a monograph book, Near-Field-Mediated Photon–Electron Interactions, Springer (2019). She is an associate editor for JOSA B, has organized a number of international symposia and conferences worldwide, and has also been invited to more than 50 colloquia, conferences and workshops as a plenary and invited speaker.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
My interest in science has been with me for as long as I can remember. It is not something that happened suddenly, but rather a natural inclination that developed from my early years. I have always enjoyed taking on intellectual challenges and exploring new concepts. For instance, when I found myself bored with simple math homework in high school, I would create new problems or seek out more challenging ones in different books.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
The two aspects of scientific work that we fully grasp in our everyday activities: learning and creativity. As physicists, we are interested in curiosity-driven research—after grasping the fundamentals, we will transfer our knowledge into new applications, such as new analytics tools or new software.
This is perhaps the idea behind Einstein’s famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Though one should be careful that imagination does not turn into science fiction, but instead into realistic and pursuable practical solutions.
“Perhaps the most joyful aspect of my work is the ability to follow my dreams.” —Nahid Talebi
Perhaps the most joyful aspect of my work is the ability to follow my dreams. When an idea comes to my mind overnight or during vacation, there is no barrier to testing the idea besides the financial bottlenecks, time or personnel. Nevertheless, these are not real bottlenecks, since one could solve them with a bit more patience, writing a proposal and relying on collaborations.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
The main resource for us is of course good publications. We look to many aspects of a scientific publication to evaluate its effectiveness, including how resourceful it is and how concrete the approaches are; how well it is established on the solid works of pioneers; and how far it brings the science to the next step—or in other words, how innovative it is.
Often, though, engaging in scientific discussions with colleagues about specific topics is an even better resource. Therefore, we definitely rely on collaborations—to access an instrument or expertise that accelerates reaching our milestones, to open the mind to more creative ideas and encourage the imagination process.
What's the best career decision you've ever made, and why?
Like any other aspect of life, success relies on our infinitesimal steps and decisions over the entire span of our lives. Perhaps one of the most important decisions for me was to join the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart as an Alexander von Humboldt research fellow. The level of independence I gained via this position was a stepping stone in my career.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Certainly, some skills like creative thinking and focus are required. However, even more important than skills are personalities. A long-life career demands hard work, motivation and the ability to confront frustration. Using good social skills in negotiations, leading large projects and motivating others to join your path are other aspects of an academic career. Teaching also demands the ability to motivate younger generations.
“A long-life career demands hard work, motivation and the ability to confront frustration.” —Nahid Talebi
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Follow your dreams, and never stop. The capability to confront frustrations can only be mastered by accepting challenges. One should recognize the most important journey of her or his life.
It can be that during a certain time, misfortunes, lack of success in a specific project and even data not meeting your expectations are presenting challenges. However, only hard work and discussions with colleagues and experts can provide a good solution. I can no longer count the number of nights that I stayed awake to debug my numerical codes, to try to understand why an experiment was not working, or to merely try to interpret the outcomes of an experiment.
The academic network is not limited to those immediately around you. Many serious challenges to my career path were solved by just sending a few emails to other peers in my field and asking for meetings, discussions or even samples or tiny pieces of equipment.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Follow your interests, ideas and missions. Nothing in the world can stop you, and the academic community is in fact the most joyful community in the world to communicate with! However, one should put effort into establishing a wonderful network of collaborative partners and also keep the network engaging.
What has been the most motivating factor throughout your career?
The most motivating factor for me has been always that science and creativity have no boundaries—no matter at which age or stage of your career you are. That there exist always plan Bs, a great supportive community and networks of academic fellows who are not your competitors, but collaborators.
“The most motivating factor for me has been always that science and creativity have no boundaries.” —Nahid Talebi
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
I rely totally on my family, friends, social network and, of course, meditation in nature. Perhaps, I am somehow lucky to be in Kiel near the seaside.
If you weren't in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
I could also engage myself in art—particularly drawing, though I cannot estimate my level of success in that case! It is just that I enjoy drawing and looking at wonderful art pieces. Science and art are nearly linked to each other and both allow for creativity and imagination.