Two scientists from the Complutense University of Madrid explore the evolution of their research group, in the context of the major cultural and political changes that have swept through Spain over the past three decades.
The Carriers of the Torch monument, Plaza Ramón y Cajal, Complutense University of Madrid
According to Spanish history, the country underwent a radical political transformation and economic rise in the early 1980s, when the repressive, dark Franco era gave way to the bright, iconoclastic sociocultural movement known as La Movida Madrileña. This cultural and political awakening is most familiar outside Spain from Pedro Almodovar’s exuberant early films, such as Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980).
But although this movement may have had its roots in the early 1980s, La Movida did not reach Spanish universities until several years later. Around 1982, when we started our studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, the institution remained in a four-decade slumber brought on by the persecution and exile of a brilliant generation of reformers who had been active in the years of the Second Republic (1932 to 1939). Although we don’t want to forget the many capable people who worked in universities at that time, the structure of Spanish academia and its underlying philosophy were far from modern and well below European standards.
After Spain joined the European economic community in 1986, our universities took a quantum leap, in tandem with many other facets of Spanish society. Every Spaniard born in the baby boom of the 1960s could likely share a story of how he or she finally came to feel modern and European. In this sense, the history of the Applied Optics Complutense Group (AOCG) of the Complutense University of Madrid is emblematic of the process of metamorphosis that was experienced by Spain and its major universities throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In academia as elsewhere, the inflow of European investments contributed to the modernization of infrastructure and the improved quality of life. In academia, this investment brought new infusions of economic support and higher standards. In addition, a host of university reform laws that came about in 1987 gave young Ph.D. researchers access to permanent positions—which dramatically increased their interest in post-graduate studies in the sciences.
The AOCG took shape in this context. Eusebio Bernabéu arrived at the Complutense University in 1983. He earned his doctorate at the University of Zaragoza under Justiniano Casas, an almost mythical figure in Spanish optics. Taking note of the changing paradigms for scientific research and its funding, Bernabéu redirected research from fundamental physics (spectroscopy, quantum optics) into new lines of applied optics (optical fiber, sensing). He marshalled public and private funds to nurture a new research group organized around a laboratory.
These changes created an ideal working environment for many young collaborators who, like us, were Bernabéu’s former students. Many of us benefited from the improved graduate fellowships available through the Spanish government. We also gained teaching positions in the physics faculty and in the School of Optics, the latter of which experienced remarkable growth in the 1980s and 1990s.
Working together, a group of us formed “La Cueva” (“the cave”)—our high-level applied optics research lab. Our generation of researchers helped develop the lab. We also grew as scientists and forged new friendships and collaborations. We completed our Ph.D.s in the 1990s, under the direction of Bernabéu, on a variety of topics within applied optics, including optical sensors, image processing, interferometry, holography, optical fibers, colorimetry, optical characterization, optical techniques for inspection and control, and optical metrology.
Many of our theses were the result of partnerships with the private sector—something unusual at that time in Spanish universities. (Since then, however, industry collaboration has become a major requirement.) For instance, for more than 15 years, we have been working with Fagor Automation, a manufacturer based in the Basque country, to help them incorporate cutting-edge developments into their optical encoders.
One of the defining features of our group is our comprehensive coverage of all the aspects of an area of research, from basic theoretical studies to the production of industry prototypes. We characterize materials in the lab, design and optimize devices, and even conduct field tests. An example of this vertical integration was our design and installation of salinity fiber optic sensors in oceanographic research vessels in the Gulf of Gdansk in Poland and the Strait of Bosporus in Turkey, funded by European projects SOFIE and MISPEC. Indeed, within the framework of such European projects, we have undertaken pioneering research.
Our participation in such projects reflects the increasingly high standards of Spanish universities. Over the course of our academic careers, students came to be expected to publish in high-level, peer-reviewed journals and to pursue research opportunities abroad. As a result, the international research context, which seemed so remote prior to the 1990s, became part of our daily work lives, as we engaged in work with colleagues around the world and discussed our own results. The volume and quality of the AOCG’s publications and the continuity of its research lines during the past two decades illustrates the now-routine presence of the Spanish groups in international conferences and meetings.
Since 2000, we have witnessed the emergence of the AOCG’s second generation. Bernabéu’s former students have developed their own research areas and are mentoring new students. The steady growth of the group has included the creation of new labs, especially in the School of Optics, a center that had seen very little research in previous years; recently, the school has created a number of new post-graduate and doctoral programs.
These successes have not come without challenges. For instance, Spain’s vibrant economic growth through 2006 made it difficult to attract high-quality Ph.D. candidates, since these bright individuals had so many other opportunities elsewhere. At the same time, the government has nurtured the creation of large, interdisciplinary research groups, with the goal of bringing together various teams; unfortunately, this has made it more difficult to obtain economic support. Facing these challenges, the AOCG has sought to join forces with key networks and participate in multidisciplinary projects.
Today, the worldwide economic crisis has hit hard in Spain. But we are optimistic about the future for AOCG. We have accumulated a wealth of experience during these years and have matured as researchers during a very special time in Spain’s history. Equally important, we have enjoyed ourselves along the way. We are, after all, Spaniards; our natural predisposition to fiesta has become compatible with the demands of high-level research. We would be delighted to share this joy with you. You can learn more about us at: www.ucm.es/info/aocg.
J.A. Quiroga and A. González-Cano are with the department of optics at the Complutense University of Madrid in Madrid, Spain.