Advice from an Industry Professional: OSA Ambassador Interview Series

By Jelena Pesic, OSA Ambassador, NOKIA Bell Labs, France

​Jelena Pesic, 2018 OSA Ambassador, conducts interviews with researchers in the field of industry. She asks a wide-range of questions regarding their inital interest in science, why they chose optics, to why industry is important.

The first interview is with Andrew Lord (visiting professor at Essex University), Head of Optical Research in BT in the United Kingdom.

  1. What is your education background?
    • BA Hons in Physics at Oxford University
  2. What got you interested in science?
    • I think I loved mathematics first – puzzles and the elegance of solving abstract problems. The science came towards the end of high school when it got more interesting. Physics always appealed to me more than biology or chemistry because there was never as much to learn, and things could be explained with only a few, simple laws.
  3. Why did you choose optics?
    • In my final year at university I asked my tutor for advice on special study options; he was an optics specialist so he naturally suggested his area! Alan Corney was a world expert in laser and atomic spectroscopy. As my university days came to an end, I asked him where to look for careers in optics and he pointed me at BT, who were doing fundamental research into optical communications. I had no idea I was joining an industry at the outset of what would be an incredible next 30 years (and it’s still going strong). Optical communications carry nearly all of the world’s data around the planet – it really has revolutionized the world.
  4. Is there any person, from the world of optics/science, you admire?
    • Erwin Schrodinger. His quantum physics theory is still being worked through in terms of exciting applications. His vision of how very small things behave strikes me as astonishingly brave and creative, and so wildly different from our experience of the macroscopic world. The implications around quantum entanglement are still being explored, with quantum computers just around the corner.
  5. What motivates you in the morning to go to work every day and to push the limits?
    • Being part of a world-changing industry. I get a thrill out of publishing new results that lead the way towards  either an improvement in our understanding or, more likely, an improvement in the design or operation of communication systems. But increasingly, I am getting as much thrill out of seeing others achieve brilliant things – I have an incredibly clever and talented team.
  6. What makes you feel you accomplished something at the end of the day?
    • Each day is very different in my job, but I always have a degree of organization and tasks that need to be worked through. Satisfaction can often be a simple as getting through a lot of jobs, all competing for my time. Occasionally there will be a new idea for a patent, or an original idea for an experiment – and that always brings additional excitement.
  7. What is your dream job?
    • Mine. Seriously! I feel incredibly privileged to be able to work in a lovely environment with a hugely bright team, working with dozens of talented people from around the world and interacting with customers and clients too. I love the variety as well as the challenge to make a difference. But I also love the freedom to explore new concepts.
  8. How did you figure out what your dream job is?
    • I think my job evolved into what I wanted it to be, and that makes me very lucky indeed. I have always wanted to be creative and get bored doing the same thing twice. On the other hand, I like to do things that might be useful, and not just of intrinsic interest. What has surprised me over the years is how I’ve come to enjoy the human side of the job much more.
  9. If you could use a time machine to get back in time, what advice would you follow to get yourself through your studies?
    • I think if I did my degree again I would get more from it second time round. It is amazing that some of the quantum physics I learnt in 1987 at Oxford, I am now actually using for the first time! But at the time I was so wrapped up in trying to get the work done that I don’t think I formed a deep appreciation of how beautiful the physics actually was. I would tell myself to spend more time reading around the subject, perhaps including the biographies of the great physicists, to get a more inspiring vision of the subject, which would hopefully then fuel me to greater efforts.
  10. Why is industry an important sector for students to look into?
    • Although some students have a very pure view of science, in that they want to study it for its own sake, I would say that for most people this view changes over time. At some point, most people will want to know that they are doing something they are sure is useful. Long term research is of course critical to mankind, but we need just as much focus on the nearer term downstreaming of science into great products and services. Industry provides that downstreaming route, often in close collaboration with university research. I am privileged to lead a research team in an industrial setting, working for a large company. I still publish papers and help coordinate conferences, but always from the perspective of doing purposeful research.
  11. When we were students, we all had moments when we thought, ‘why do I need to learn this’, ‘when will I ever use this in life?’ Did you experience moments like these? How did you overcome them?
    • Ironically, I remember thinking just this when I was learning about creation and annihilation operators in quantum mechanics many years ago. The understanding gained then has helped significantly in a new world where quantum physics is becoming very important. At the time I just ploughed on – not really questioning why. I just wanted a good degree and a good job. But in hindsight, I was learning not just some crucial concepts, but – and this is possibly more important – how to approach problems and how to think about the world. So, even when studying things that don’t seem relevant, it is always worth remembering that you are picking up critical problem solving and analytical skills.
  12. From your point of view, what is the difference between research in university/institute and research in industry?
    • Industry research has to be purposeful. We have to justify that there is a good reason for doing it. Often, also, the research will have a nearer term benefit. In university you can focus on longer term questions. I think this is the right balance.
  13. How do you like to spend your free time?
    • I like composing music, playing piano and guitar, cooking and solving maths puzzles. I have also recently started running to reverse a worrying linear increase in weight – but I wouldn’t say I actually ‘like’ running!


Posted: 20 April 2018 by Jelena Pesic, OSA Ambassador, NOKIA Bell Labs, France | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.


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