Christina Willis

Christina Willis - 2022 SPIE Women in Optics Planner

Legislative Aide
Colorado Senate Democrats,
Colorado General Assembly, USA

SPIE Member

Christina Willis

Born in the US
Resides in the US
Educational Background: BA in Physics, Wellesley College; MA and PhD in Optics, CREOL, College of Optics, University of Central Florida

I was drawn to science from an early age with all the classic “take everything apart” tendencies. In college, I majored in physics and decided to pursue further study in optics and laser development. Only years later did I realize that my interest in lasers was heavily influenced by a movie that had been my favorite since age 12: Real Genius. It’s about college students working on a high-power laser project, and that’s what I ended up studying in graduate school!

My current job is totally removed from my graduate studies and career in industry. I work as a legislative aide to a state senator who is also a PhD scientist! I transitioned from industry and laser development to public policy by applying and being selected for the Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellowship, cosponsored by SPIE and OSA. I served as staff on a US Senate subcommittee for a year. My role as a fellow was equivalent to a legislative assistant, and I learned a huge amount about how legislation is developed.

A major challenge I faced was finishing my dissertation project. It was complex and it was entirely mine. I love wearing many hats and getting to do everything, but it also left me largely alone when things went wrong. I had a long series of unfortunate events that caused months of delay and my research became an extreme exercise in determination and expectation management. I was fortunate to have an amazing spouse, an excellent senior researcher to consult, and I took advantage of the free mental-health services offered on campus. With that support system and a lot of grit and persistence, I was able to push through, complete my project, and graduate. It is one of my proudest accomplishments.

I used to see self-care as a distraction from work. Now I believe that taking time to exercise, rest, or cook a healthy meal are essential investments in my ability to perform; these activities make me more productive and creative, improve my quality of life, and will enable me to live longer.

STEM can provide you with an incredibly satisfying career. It is about solving puzzles and understanding the nature of the Universe, and a STEM education gives you a broad array of amazing skills and career opportunities that go beyond STEM itself, including public policy! It can be super frustrating dealing with people who treat you like you don’t belong in STEM because you are a woman, but don’t let them get you down. Just keep going and prove them wrong! I also highly recommend finding mentors, colleagues, and friends (both female and male) who you can talk with, go to for support, and who can help you navigate career questions.

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