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Teri Odom

For this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Teri Odom. Teri is Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison professor of chemistry, professor of materials science and engineering, and associate director of the International Institute of Nanotechnology (IIN) at Northwestern University, USA. Her research focuses on designing structured nanoscale materials that exhibit extraordinary size- and shape-dependent optical properties.

Teri is a Visionary Speaker at the upcoming Frontiers in Optics/Laser Science APS/DLS conference. Her talk, “Peering through the looking glass: The next frontier in nano-optics,” is scheduled for 17 September 2018.  

What first interested you in pursuing science?

A phenomenon that I learned about in college: Young’s double-slit experiment. I found it fascinating that a single object could appear to transit through two slits at the same time based on the measured interference pattern.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I was not a science “geek” when I was a kid. I didn’t compete in science fairs or take things apart or tinker with chemistry sets. I was just as inspired and curious about the natural world as I was about numerous other subjects. It wasn’t until college and my introduction to quantum mechanics—and “seeing” atoms in scanning tunneling microscopy images—that I became interested in research.

Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?

Yes. Scientific discovery is a series of failures and successes with opportunity, happenstance and timing all mixed in.

For me, the discouragement has been more project-based than science in general. When I was a graduate student investigating the electronic properties of single-walled carbon nanotubes, I needed to find a way to raise my project to the next level that would produce a substantial advance in the field. Here, I learned to think about how condensed-matter phenomena such as the Kondo effect could have an analog in nanomaterials systems. Then, talking to people outside of my field, we found a way to demonstrate this effect based on a magnetic nanoparticle coupled to a carbon nanotube.

As a professor, funding heavily guides what your team can work on—so, if we are unable to raise resources even though we believe the project is interesting, how long do we continue working on the project? Sometimes we end up moving on as our interests shift. Other times, we have just kept trying until we convince ourselves that the problem is not worth pursuing.

What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?

As founding executive editor of a photonics journal, I have a pretty good pulse on what is current in our field, and what authors from a wide range of disciplines are interested in at the interface of photonics, devices, chemistry and materials. Staying current with the literature by subscribing to journal feeds for weekly updates and reading a wide range of general and topical journals—as a means to think constantly about how those advances can inspire new directions in our research—have been beneficial. I also participate in a range of different technical and society meetings.

Of the conferences you’ve attended, has there been a stand-out topic/session/interaction that really stuck with you or changed your perspective?

For me, the type of conference has been more meaningful than a single session at a meeting. Smaller meetings can bring students, postdocs, and faculty together both to discuss a frontier research area and to facilitate lasting connections. These meetings are a special blend of great science and a fun, supportive network.

What tips for successful networking and effective collaboration do you have for early-career professionals?

First, you have to be a little bold and a lot brave—all while being yourself. You need to be willing to take initiative in introducing yourself and your work to new people as most people will not come up to you.

A high level of emotional intelligence can also help in establishing and building a diverse network of people who can help you. This is really important in the short term as well as long term.

Finally, I’d suggest being a student of the literature and reading broadly. Learn the language of different fields—often you are talking about the same thing, but the language can be a significant barrier to getting what you want: a convergence approach that leads to new science and unanticipated outcomes.

What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

The maxim “it takes a village” is true. Scientific achievement and opportunities are not realized in a vacuum or by an individual working harder or being luckier than everyone else. Everyone needs help and connections.

I believe that having an advocate is indispensable. This person serves as your cheerleader, coach, and navigator. They will defend you in public and be honest in how you can improve in private. Someone who can see your strengths and weaknesses and value you for yourself is a gift. I do my best to be this type of person for my students and postdocs and junior faculty.

I have had different types of mentors at different career stages and for different reasons. The more diverse the mentor pool is, the more advantageous for everyone. Although it should come as no surprise, it bears stating: effective mentoring is intentional and requires a great deal of work.

How do you define success in your career?

Contentment and contributions to the greater good. I believe that everything we do matters and needs to fit in somewhere.

A couple of examples—in terms of science, my research group and I feel rewarded when we can identify a problem and be the first ones to provide a solution such that our field progresses. In terms of people, I find great satisfaction in promoting and supporting the work of others (we are a collective disciplinary team, after all) and helping my mentees identify what they are really good at and where they might go. And, in terms of organizations, I am excited to do my part in guiding their trajectory and advancing their mission.

How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?

These opportunities are very important. Although women are often told to be better at saying “no”, I tend to be a “yes” person. In part, I feel as if I can always learn and offer something from the role. And, the only way to improve as a leader is to practice; receive any necessary training; be open to making mistakes and then learning from them; gain exposure to a range of different environments.

Women need more opportunities to say “yes” to the best requests—those that will both benefit them and help the organization. And as a leader, staying positive is key.

What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?

Do your homework. Know your audience. Be genuine. Decisions are made by people—and knowing what you bring to the organization is important to articulate.

And for any type of presentation: practice, practice, practice. Test your ideas and receive feedback from as many different people as possible.

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

One big change is that starting September, I will become chair of the Chemistry Department at Northwestern University. I look forward to working with my colleagues, staff and students to create a department that welcomes and values all persons and that will continue to define new interdisciplinary areas for next-generation chemistry.

If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?

I’m exactly where I want to be. I’m the type of person who wants to live each day well—and to stay in the present. I love training students. Being a professor and scientist in a university environment is an incredible privilege. Helping lead my department is an honor.

However, I am not my vocation, and life can bring unexpected changes. I like this incisive line from the movie Croupier: “hold on tightly, let go lightly.” In my interpretation, we need to hold fast to things we care deeply about and be willing to let them go freely should circumstances change.