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Student Innovation, Excellence Enhance Photonics Europe

By Dirk Fabian

Photonics Europe, SPIE's bi-annual major European conference, may have concluded under a cloud of ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano, but the week highlighted the bright future for photonics students in Europe.

Lights over the Palace Gardens in Brussels
Lights over the Palace Gardens in Brussels next to the Square Conference Center

Certainly, the winners of the best student paper prizes awarded in all nineteen conferences experienced this. The winning papers were selected by the conference chairs for creativity and impact on a scientific problem. The list of winners and photos is available on the Photonics Europe news website.

Local students Els Moens and Tom Guldemont, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) SPIE Student Chapter, took the lead in organizing two of the main student events for the conference. The session on "Best Practices for a successful Future in Photonics" brought four solid speakers to cover the topics of career development, working with the media, EU funding, and European patents.

Focus on career skills

John Dudley, Professeur à l'Université de Franche-Comté, began his talk on career development with a graphic visualization of a Twitter network, describing the optics and photonics community as a similar small world network. His talk emphasized how students can use the characteristics of the small world network to their advantage. He highlighted specifc career development tactics like volunteering as a paper reviewer and gave tips on how best to pursue relationships with people that can help you solve interesting problems.

Toby Murcott, a PhD biochemist and former science journalist for the BBC, discussed how best to add journalists to your small world network. His first main tip, "safety first," drew some laughs but emphasized the important point that scientists and journalists do things differently.  Scientists should be prepared to be "on the record" at all times and thoroughly double check what is published. Since many scientists are associated with a university and its press office, some common understanding on how journalists operate will go a long way to ensuring that your ideas get out into the public forum in an appropriate way.

Other talks were more specific to European researchers. Ronen Burgess of the European Commission discussed the intricacies needed to submit a project for EU funding. As a project reviewer, he was able to give specific examples of things that have caused other proposals to be rejected. As he described it, it is easier to know what will cause a proposal to be rejected rather find a winning formula for selection. Patents were covered by Yves Verbandt, patent reviewer of the EPO, an intricte subject that can influence decisions on whether to publish research results.

Job prospects in Europe

VUB's career event invited companies to make a brief presentation on their business, products, and job opportunities. The VUB students worked hard to find twelve companies that were all actively hiring in Europe: Tyco Electronics, ASML, Best, Philips, Hamamatsu, OIP Sensor Systems, Optrima, AGFA, XiO Photonics, FOS&S, BARCO, and Multitel. The news is encouraging, especially from companies hit hard by the economic crisis like those in semi-conductors. Sander Stegeman from ASML said, "I need to hire a new engineer every week for the rest of the year" to keep up. Biomedical and imaging firms all seemed to be making recoveries, which is especially good news for graduating students.

Student Organization

One of the main tasks for me at Photonics Europe was to connect with current and prospective SPIE Student Chapter members. Once again, the VUB students provided a great venue for this. A student dinner at Restobieres featured the antics and deep beer list of the owner, Alain Fayt, a true Brussels character who dressed as beer related characters as each new course appeared. Student Lunch with the Experts and conference dinners at the Auto world historic car museum and the comic strip museum provided additional opportunities to eat local foods (chocolate!) and build those small world networks.

Nika and Sebastian at Photonics Europe
Nika Razansky (TU München) and Sebastian Marschall (TU Denmark) toast to a fine evening out

Developing these networks in Europe is an interesting venture. I encountered several cases where students were doing research in photonics, but not aware of similar photonics studies at their own university (or even other students working for the same advisor!). One of the features of SPIE Student Chapters is to provide a mechanism and funding to bring photonics students together to share their experience and techniques. This seems especially important in Europe, where the time to obtain a PhD and thus build a network is much shorter than other places. I enjoyed simply introducing people to other SPIE student members at their own university. Naturally, this leads to talk of chapters and I am encouraged by the amount of chapter organization that is occuring in Europe and around the world.

As big as Photonics Europe was this year, Mother Nature had the last laugh, overwhelming the departure plans of attendees. The Thursday walking dinner was packed with people making uncertain travel plans. Trains, ferries, buses, and impromptu car pools formed as people tried to make their way home. Unfortunately I had to cancel my visit to Poland and the Nicolas Copernicus University despite some extreme travel planning. By now, everyone is home, and hopefully even this adverse event has contributed to forging stronger connections among the European Photonics community.

Students out in Brussels
Photonics Europe wasn't all work - students explored the beauty of the European capital on their way to the Wednesday night dinner.