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100 Scientists On An Island

Shree Krishnamoorthy, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras, India

What do you get when you gather about 100 laser scientists on a small island? You get a lot of geeky light jokes (pun intended), learning, discussions ranging from lasers, solitons, POTUS, gender issues to new anime. All in all you get one of the best laser schools ever conducted!

I was lucky to be a part of the fifth Siegman International School on Lasers in the Island of Hven, Backafallsbyn in Sweden between 28th July - 4th August, 2018. This trip had it all - learning, sun, sand, sea, gastronomic treats, scintillating conversations and people from all over the world. If it were not for Kavita, a friend of mine in my graduate school (Indian Institute of Technology, Madras in Chennai, India) I would not have been a part of this school. She nudged me to apply to the Siegman School when we were discussing about how our graduate school experiences were and what we would do next. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn about the latest in optics and network with scientists all over the world. The diversity of the group was really a highlight. I could already feel this was going to be a very cool trip. There would be so much to learn and share.

In the first part of the week, I heard lectures about fiber lasers, optical traps, nuclear fusion, and so many topics that I had very little knowledge about when I arrived but were inspiring. Coming from India, the route for a student is pre-determined. You go through twelve years of schooling only to be told about the most practical choices you need to make that will give you a settled life and career. It is almost a path written in stone. It is a formula that has worked for generations. Suddenly in the span of next eight hours, we were told to really think about our careers. Not everyone needs to be a professor. Jes showed us the statistics that in our class of nearly hundred, only less than one of us would become a full-time professor. That is alarming! Well it turns out non-academic careers are on the rise. A PhD allows you to now choose between academia or industry with active research.

After the career talks, we had a discussion on gender bias in academia. It was interesting to see that there were more men asking how they can be helpful to bring equality in the workplace. The general theme was everyone needs to be treated the same. Then came the question of sexual harassment. As we went deeper into the discussion of how sexual harassment starts, we realized that somewhere there is a need to provide a neutral and safe forum for the harassed to voice themselves. The onset of sexual harassment might be just harassment, like bullying. Since it is hard to distinguish between being tough to  improve a student and plain bullying, bullying slips under the radar. We are now in the time in history where all oppressed, not just women, by the power imbalance have become vocal and are making changes. This day was an eye opener.

Throughout the rest of the week we learned more from the lecturers but I had realized that I wanted to learn more from the students attending. While most of interaction took a social turn, I wanted to discuss and learn some of the things I was not clear about in the classes. Some of us decided to learn about Solitons together and it ended up being a very fruitful discussion. More importantly, I think I am happy I made some more friends with whom I can also discuss science.

While it may seem like the week was full of talks and engaging discussions, we also had some fun activities woven through the week. This included my first fishing expedition, cycling, a distillery tour and even a midnight pop quiz lead by Kishan. This pop quiz was very competitive as well as exciting where my teammates had the answers to music artists, airports codes, and general OSA knowledge. We were the best team known as ”Zebra in a microscope”. This was one of those you had to be there to see it days.

This whirlwind week was coming to a close and I fell asleep dreaming about this week wishing somehow the days would go on like this. When we were all heading to our respective homes, I thought back to how Jen was right, we would know everyone by the end of the week. Some I would never forget and some I would stay friends for a long time to come. The journey back was somehow much quicker and since the end of the school every time an email from OSA pops up in my account now, I think back to the time I was on an island in the Baltic sea with 100 scientists, learning about science, making new friends and just one week about discovering new possibilities.

Peter asked me in one of the conversations “Shree, what did you learn in the school?” I said, “I learnt that no matter where we come from we are all just people. Everyone has fears, hopes and dreams. The thing that connects us together is optics and lasers.” That is what brought us together to that island. I believe that is what will keep us together later in life.

Image for keeping the session alive