Skip To Content

Journeys in Optics: Agata Azzolin

Head shot of Agata Azzolin

Agata Azzolin

In the latest installment of Journeys in Optics, OPN spoke with Agata Azzolin, a graduate student at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL) at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany. Azzolin is also a leader of the Optica Short Wavelength Sources and Attosecond/High Field Physics technical group.

How did you get involved in attosecond science?

I studied engineering physics with the idea of doing something applied and somehow practical. But at the end of my bachelor’s, that application aspect and laboratory life that I was looking for were still lacking. Nonetheless, I fortunately had the chance to discover attosecond science during a seminar and I got in contact with the professors in my university working on this topic and asked to volunteer in their labs.

I basically got involved because I was looking for something more in my studies. With attosecond science I found the perfect combination of pioneering exploration and applied techniques, but also lots of abstraction and creativity. It was a challenge that gave me the motivation to push further.

What would you say have been some of the biggest moments on your academic path?

“With attosecond science I found the perfect combination of pioneering exploration and applied techniques, but also lots of abstraction and creativity.”
Agata Azzolin

I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t asked to do more and been able to volunteer in labs in my free time. Since then, there have also been other things that made me feel like I could be more daring. For example, when I was finishing my master’s degree, I won a student scholarship from SPIE for my potential contributions to optics and photonics―that moment gave me the confidence to face head-on the next phase of my career—and life―moving out of Italy.

Along this path, I’ve had true moments of satisfaction, for example, when I won financial support for my very own and first scientific project. But overall, my biggest moments have been born from the exchanges I had with professionals during conferences and workshops, especially conversations that came from pure curiosity and marvel.

What motivates you as a graduate student?

I’ve always been the kind of person who looks further ahead rather than close to my feet. I’ve known since high school that I wanted to be a researcher but on my own terms. I have a clear idea of how I would like to be part of the scientific community; for me it is not only a matter of doing high-level and high-quality science but doing science for the people, for our knowledge, curiosity and well-being.

This is what pushes me further every day―my curiosity and the potential ways that I could help others. If I didn’t have such a big dream and strong ideals, I would most likely succumb to daily challenges.

What is your favorite aspect of your research?

What I like about attosecond science is that it is multifaceted and diverse in scope and techniques. It requires creativity, technical abilities and the capability of abstraction and imagination, and it combines chemistry, biology and atomic and molecular physics, but also engineering to optimize all the processes.

I like the variety in what I’m doing―it helps keep my enthusiasm high, as there is always something new to learn. Moreover, despite winning a Nobel Prize, attosecond science is still in its infancy. We are still working out the potential of what it could be, which leaves lots of room for us to use our imagination.

If you could give a student just starting out any advice, what would it be?

Be brave, dare what others have not, follow your instincts and trust your gut. We are still humans out there trying to do our best, most of the time in challenging conditions, so face them with your head up. Stay loyal to your values as a person, not only as a scientist.

How has mentorship been important to your career trajectory?

Mentorship has been crucial for me since the beginning of my studies. I have always loved to listen to someone else’s experiences because I know I can learn from them.

“I’ve met many other people who I consider mentors, both in my life and my career―when there’s a connection and an affinity that goes beyond scientific topics, touching our inner selves―that is when mentorship works.”
Agata Azzolin

I’ve had the good fortune of having two very special mentors during my doctorate who see me as a human and value me and believe in me and my potential, even when I don’t. They help me when I am going through tough moments, and they are there to celebrate with me during the good ones.

I’ve met many other people who I consider mentors, both in my life and my career―when there’s a connection and an affinity that goes beyond scientific topics, touching our inner selves―that is when mentorship works.

Can you talk about your participation in the Short Wavelength Sources and Attosecond/High Field Physics technical group? How are you involved, and what do you think it has done for your career?

I’ve been actively involved with the student chapters of Optica since my master’s. Recently, however, I’ve felt that I also wanted to contribute to the community in a different way, more related to my research―technical groups are the perfect space for this. I love the sense of community that Optica is able to create; it makes me feel like I am part of something bigger and that what I am doing has a real impact.

I joined the technical group at the beginning of the year, and we immediately got into action organizing an event for the High-Intensity Lasers and High-Field Phenomena (HILAS) Topical Meeting. We have numerous ideas and are working on future events, most of which are geared toward early-career professionals. I like that I’m the youngest there and I have so much to learn from the other members, but at the same time, I feel welcomed, valued and listened to for the ideas I bring and the support I can give from a different perspective.  

What do you envision for your career after graduate school?

I’d love to continue with research in academia―that’s what I’m planning on, looking forward to the next stage. I want to stay involved with Optica and the larger optics community that I have become a part of during these past years―they have helped me grow, and I hope they will continue to do so.

Also, as my expertise increases, I will be able to contribute and serve differently and hopefully be a pillar to support new early-career researchers.

How do you maintain a work/life balance, something that can be challenging as a graduate student?

Well, that isn’t an easy task, and I’m not always good at it. However, I’ve learned to listen to my body and mind when they tell me they need rest or when they are ready for more. I love running, which helps me free my mind and stretch my body.

Marathon training, even if it is demanding, helps me keep on track. It gives structure to my routine, “forces” me to sleep and eat well and keeps me from overworking and sliding into anxiety. In general, sports have always helped me manage stress and provide balance in my life. Then when sports aren’t enough, my friends and family are there to support and keep an eye on me.

Publish Date: 09 July 2024

Add a Comment