In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Rosario Porras-Aguilar, an assistant professor in the department of physics and optical science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA. She is the head of the active and reconfigurable optics laboratory. Porras's research harnesses the optical properties of nanomaterials to obtain quantitative 3D information of transparent objects for biological and industrial applications.
Porras was recognized with the NSF-CAREER Award in 2021. She was named a Cottrell Scholar in 2021 and a Scialog Fellow in 2022 for the Advancing Bioimaging program, both recognitions given by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.
Committed to fostering environments of diversity and inclusion in STEM, Porras has organized numerous events to encourage and promote the participation of women in STEM areas in Mexico and the involvement of first-generation Latin@ students at UNC Charlotte. In addition, her leadership contributions include her service to professional societies, such as the International Society for Optics and Photonics.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
My fascination with science began with the thrill of exploration and the joy of discovering the unknown. From a young age, I was naturally curious and found myself drawn to the world around me. Science, to me, represented a way to satisfy that insatiable curiosity.
What currently attracts me to science is the perfect blend of intellectual challenge and methodological rigor. It's like a captivating puzzle where you're constantly uncovering new pieces and figuring out how they fit together.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
Light and imaging fascinate me, particularly in the context of label-free microscopy and quantitative phase imaging. It's a field that constantly pushes the boundaries of technology, enabling us to see beyond what was once thought possible.
As a scientist, quantitative phase imaging is a captivating discipline that combines cutting-edge optics with computational techniques to reveal details within biological samples. What excites me the most is the potential to observe these samples with incredible precision and without the need for contrast agents. This not only simplifies the imaging process but also ensures that the observed biological structures remain in their natural state, free from any potential interference introduced by dyes or stains.
In addition to my scientific work, I'm equally passionate about my role as an educator and my involvement in the Label-Free STEM Education Initiative. This outreach program allows me to share the wonders of optics and photonics with the next generation and inspire young minds to explore the fascinating world of liquid crystals and quantitative phase imaging. The program aims to make STEM education more accessible and engaging, fostering curiosity and creativity among students.
“In addition to my scientific work, I'm equally passionate about my role as an educator and my involvement in the Label-Free STEM Education Initiative.”
This label-free microscopy approach, both in my scientific work and educational outreach, has vast implications in various fields, including biology and medicine. It enables us to delve deeper into the world of cellular structures, dynamic processes and interactions, all while preserving the integrity of the samples. The ability to see biological phenomena in their unaltered state is not only scientifically intriguing but also holds great promise for advancing our understanding of the natural world, and I am deeply excited about the potential impact on both fronts.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Here are some tips that I would share with them:
Actively participate in conferences. Conferences are excellent platforms for networking. Presenting your own research through talks or posters can help you gain visibility and credibility in your field. You will have the opportunity to meet researchers and experts in optics and photonics from industry and academia. Don't hesitate to approach speakers or attendees whose work interests you. Engaging in discussions about research and trends can lead to valuable connections.
Volunteer. Volunteering at conferences and professional organizations is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the community. It not only gives you behind-the-scenes access but also allows you to connect with organizers and fellow volunteers. Be open to diverse roles that may take you out of your comfort zone; you'll gain valuable experience and expand your network.
Join professional organizations. Being a part of professional organizations like Optica is invaluable. These organizations often offer networking events, webinars and publications that can help you stay connected and informed about developments in your field. Moreover, volunteering for these organizations can give you exposure and allow you to contribute to the community.
Have an online presence. In today's digital age, an online presence is crucial. Create and maintain a professional profile on platforms like LinkedIn. Share your work, engage with others and build a digital network in addition to in-person connections.
Follow up. Networking doesn't end when the event is over. Always follow up with the contacts you've made. Send a thank-you email or message, and express your interest in staying connected. Building and nurturing relationships over time is key to successful networking.
“Networking doesn't end when the event is over. Always follow up with the contacts you've made.”
Seek out mentors within your field. Established professionals can provide guidance and introductions to key players in the industry. They can help you navigate your career path and provide valuable insights.
Be yourself. Networking is not just about collecting business cards or LinkedIn connections; it's about building meaningful relationships based on shared interests and goals. It is important to be genuine in our interactions, and focus on how we can add value to the network as well.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Besides technical proficiency and analytical thinking, the ability to efficiently organize and manage projects is critical to ensure research progresses smoothly. Soft skills, encompassing effective communication, mentoring, teamwork and adept problem solving, play a central role in fostering productive collaborations and addressing the multifaceted challenges encountered.
In addition, the skill of presenting research findings clearly and persuasively is indispensable. Securing funding for research endeavors is a necessity, highlighting the importance of grant-writing abilities. The capacity to adapt to and embrace evolving technologies is equally vital to staying at the forefront of innovation.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
If I were in that situation, my first step would be to prioritize self-care and reevaluate my work–life balance. Burnout can contribute to discouragement. Next, I'd take time to reflect on the nature of my work and its true significance. Sometimes, a simple shift in perspective can uncover the value of our contributions and the progress we've achieved. This reframing of our achievements can significantly boost our morale.
It's essential to ensure we've set realistic expectations and understand that scientific progress can be gradual. Not every experiment or project will yield immediate results. Therefore, it's crucial to acknowledge and celebrate small victories along the way to keep motivation high. Finally, after revisiting my career goals and research interests, I'd consider adjusting my course or even setting entirely new goals that reignite my curiosity and motivation
“It's essential to ensure we've set realistic expectations and understand that scientific progress can be gradual. Not every experiment or project will yield immediate results.”
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
One piece of advice I wish I had been given as a student or early in my career is to embrace the idea that even a small step is progress. Early in my journey, I often felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges and goals I aspired to achieve. Looking back, I realize that taking consistent, small actions toward my objectives, no matter how modest they may seem, is what ultimately leads to significant accomplishments.
It's about understanding that every tiny effort adds up and contributes to our overall progress. This perspective can alleviate the pressure of immediate success and encourage a more constructive and sustainable approach to building one's career.
What has been the most motivating factor throughout your career?
The most motivating factor that has consistently driven my career is the alignment of my professional goals with my personal interests and the broader societal good. Having a clear career goal that resonates with my passions and values has been a powerful force propelling me forward. It's this alignment that fuels my enthusiasm and commitment, making the daily challenges and hard work feel rewarding.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
At the core of my routine is mindful meditation, which plays an essential role in preserving my mental clarity and unwavering focus. Regular meditation sessions empower me to effectively manage stress, make sound decisions and maintain equilibrium in my demanding work environment. Taking short self-care breaks throughout my day is another cornerstone of my work–life balance. These brief intermissions serve as opportunities to refresh and refocus, ultimately leading to heightened productivity.
A unique habit that defines my approach to success is rewarding my efforts, not just the final outcomes. Understanding that final outcomes often involve factors beyond my control, I find fulfillment in recognizing the value of my dedication and persistence, irrespective of the ultimate results.
Moreover, I wholeheartedly embrace the practice of seeking help from others. Trusting in the knowledge and expertise of my mentees, colleagues and mentors enriches my decision-making and problem-solving processes, fostering a collaborative and supportive environment that contributes to my achievements.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would he/she be most surprised by?
If my ten-years-younger self were to look at my career today, what would be most astonishing is the profound sense of gratitude I would feel. The realization that my wildest dreams have not only been fulfilled but also surpassed is a humbling experience.
“The realization that my wildest dreams have not only been fulfilled but also surpassed is a humbling experience.”
As a first-generation student who came from a low-socioeconomic-status family with limited access to education, the journey to becoming a scientist and an associate professor is a testament to the transformative power of opportunities, sponsors such as the Mexican Science Council, the National Science Foundation, and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the guidance of mentors who have shaped my career.
I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to these individuals and organizations who believed in my potential and offered unwavering support, enabling me to reach the heights I now stand on. The opportunities that have unfolded in my career have not only fulfilled my aspirations but have exceeded them in ways I could have never imagined. The overwhelming sense of gratitude for these experiences and the people who have been instrumental in my journey is a constant source of inspiration. It motivates me to pay forward the support I've received, fostering a positive impact on the next wave of dedicated young scientists.