Senior Member Insights: Jisha Chandroth Pannian

Jisha Chandroth Pannian photo

Jisha Chandroth Pannian

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Jisha Chandroth Pannian, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellow at the Institute of Applied Physics of Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany. Pannian graduated with her master’s in physics from Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), India, in 2003 and obtained her Ph.D. from the same university in 2009. She has several years of postdoctoral experience, including stays in Italy, Taiwan and Portugal. Pannian is a working mother, and her research interests include geometric phase in optics, spin-orbit photonics and waveguiding.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

I was always fascinated by how things work and was curious as a child. Math and science were easy for me, and I did not have to put much effort into them. As a bright student, I was always expected to become an engineer or medical doctor, but serendipity led me to pursue higher studies in physics.

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

I still get to learn new things! As a scientist, you are always learning new things, new techniques and recent trends, and I really enjoy doing that. Also, in an academic environment you never feel “old” and always remain young at heart. I get to mentor and work together with the students, which I really enjoy. I also worked in different places, which brought me in contact with people of diverse cultural backgrounds, and I got to see a lot of beautiful places.

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

Personally, I feel it is very important to join professional scientific societies and to get involved in the student chapters of these societies. It is also important to participate in conferences. This will open up new friendships, new collaborations, new ideas and even new research directions.

How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?

I think a leadership role is important for career development, and one should be in a really supportive research environment to both develop and be recognized for the role. To hone my leadership skills, I get involved in grant preparations, preparing my own grant proposals, mentoring students and starting new research directions.

What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?

Even though I did not realize it at the time, in retrospect I think deciding to pursue a bachelor’s in physics rather than trying one more year to clear the engineering/medical entrance exam was one of the best decisions I made. Being an Indian, you are told your whole life to either become an engineer or a doctor. Once I did my bachelor’s degree, I was under huge pressure to become a teacher by doing a teacher training course. That is the next best thing for women, at least according to society.

I was lucky that I could do my master’s at a research university rather than a normal college. This was my first interaction with the world of research, and I immediately knew that I wanted to do a Ph.D. I remember when I would tell people that I was doing my doctorate, they would ask, “when can you treat people?”

I think people in general did not have any idea about what research is and why it can be a career. Even now people ask me when I will finish my studies! Of course, as a researcher, you never stop learning.

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

I think to be a researcher, one needs to be really passionate about science and have a lot of patience. Personally, I have seen that students want instant results and instant gratification, and that leads to a less than ideal way of doing research. One must realize that science is not what is shown on sitcoms. Experiments and codes take time to run. One must analyze data irrespective of whether you are an experimentalist or theorist. One must have critical thinking and the capability to solve problems through careful deduction and analysis.

What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?

Unfortunately, academia has become very competitive. Ideas get scooped, experiments do not work, instruments die, and after all this, there are not enough career opportunities in academia. I would say to always have a clear path and a secondary plan for your career and research. Sort of like “risk management” of the proposals. One should also always talk with their peers and colleagues who might have already faced the same problems and dilemmas.

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

I did not know how the research community works, how to find opportunities or the pros and cons of the career paths I would or could take. I am happy that things have changed and there are always informational events and mentoring activities organized, at least at my current university.

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

As a mentor, I have realized that people come from diverse backgrounds and it is really important to listen to their experiences, and this has given me important leadership skills. Mentoring can be as simple as helping a new colleague to settle into a new environment or to support a student in their career path. In turn, you get lifelong friendships and strengthen your network. My mentors have helped me learn to take constructive criticism and taught me the importance of paying advice and mentorship forward.

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

Personally, I am now in a comfortable situation with a good work-life balance and the right amount of responsibilities. It might not look ideal from the standard view of things, but for me, it is important that one does not burn out. I am looking forward to the results from my current research and positive responses to the proposals from funding agencies!

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