In this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Ulrike Fuchs. Ulrike is currently vice president of strategy and innovation at asphericon GmbH. Her research focus has shifted from combining manufacturing and metrology of aspherics with questions of optical design, to continuously working on concepts that enable the prediction of system performance in optical design and tolerance processes. Recently, great emphasis has been given to transferring these ideas to freeform optics.
Ulrike is also the first winner of OSA’s Kevin P. Thompson Optical Design Innovator Award.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I was inspired about going into science by what I learned about the work of my father, who was a physicist, and my grandfather, who was an engineer. For me, this was a completely different world than what was taught in school, and I wanted to be able to solve problems the way scientists could. The ability to approach tasks and get answers with logic and experimental setups fascinated me.
Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?
Oh yes—there was a time when I was discouraged by my decision to study physics. That was during my first semester and caused by my math class. To take in so much new stuff in such a short time was an overwhelming experience that made me wonder if I had made the right decision. What helped me a lot during this time was to not hold out on my own, but to learn together with my fellow students. My perseverance was rewarded and it became easier.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student, or early in your career?
Studying physics as a woman never seemed like anything special to me. I wish someone had told me beforehand that part of my journey was to prove that I was actually doing a good job and not just part of a quota to be met. That would certainly have spared me one or two self-doubts. I am very relieved to see that times are slowly changing here, and that diversity is welcomed positively in STEM.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I like to go to conferences a lot, including the smaller ones. Presenting our results and learning about what others are busy with at the moment is just as enriching as the personal exchange. In fact, I usually spend at least half of my time at networking events and seminars around the actual conferences. No other place gives you the chance to learn so many new things in such a short time. In addition, I use professional networking platforms to stay in touch with and find all the people I meet.
Of the conferences you've attended, has there been a stand-out topic/session/interaction that really stuck with you or changed your perspective?
The International Optical Design Conference (IODC) is my ultimate favorite conference! The first time I was there in 2014, I was deeply impressed by the variety of topics optical designers around the world are working on. Furthermore, it was nice to see more than 300 experts in this field in one place, which is rather rare. The conference itself was very strenuous for me, as talks were given from early to late and somehow everything was interesting. The follow-up conference in 2017 was a just as great an event and I am looking forward to the 2020–21 conference.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Of course, the easiest way to get to know other people is by simply being introduced to them. So, if you have that chance, take it. Sometimes, however, you simply do not know anyone and have to become active yourself. Some people do this naturally, for others it is a big hurdle.
It is a good start to a conversation at conferences if you address others directly about their presentations during coffee breaks, perhaps by asking questions. This is, of course, best achieved if it is not too far from one's own interests. Furthermore, it is important to maintain these contacts. In my experience, it is a joyful hello to meet “old” friends again at every conference.
What tips do you have for effective collaboration in your field?
Collaboration always means that two or more parties working together on a superordinate topic and all contribute their share. The last point is very important. Everyone must have the opportunity and the will to play an equal role in the project. As always in life, it is very important to be open-minded and to not only hear each other, but also to listen.
Looking back, I would say that interdisciplinary cooperation in particular is a real challenge, since it is not uncommon for people to speak different “specialist languages”. At the same time, it is also these projects where everyone involved can learn and benefit the most, because it means looking beyond one's own nose. I find this chance to change my perspective very enriching and often new ideas and questions arise spontaneously.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
It fills me with joy to see how my colleagues, who already came to my department as students or career starters, develop personally and professionally. I never thought I would be so excited about this. That is why I think that this mentoring experience has also shaped my personal view of the world.
My own abilities to lead a group have grown in very different ways, as of course every new person has his or her own personality and skill set. Supporting young people forces me again and again to open myself to new perspectives. My current students are only half my age and they grew up very differently. I just love this part of my job.
As a physicist, I was trained to systematically analyze problems and make logical conclusions and decisions based on them. Therefore, one of the most important lessons I learned from a mentor was to trust my gut feeling. If it doesn't feel consistent, it usually isn't. Building on this, I have been able to lead and grow a team with a wide variety of topics for years now. It also gives me a certain peace of mind, which makes me not regret decisions made once, as they were right at that time and cannot be reversed anyway.
How do you define success in your career?
I am very curious and knowledge-hungry, so for me, success means being able to work with others on new, exciting topics. My constantly growing network, which makes this possible, is very valuable to me.
In my opinion, success can never be achieved alone, and it comes about in many different ways. A very important aspect of this is a trustful interpersonal interaction—this is the only way to create a real cooperation from which all participants benefit and is the foundation for lasting success.
How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?
Taking responsibility is very important, not only at work but in life in general. Having a leadership position means taking responsibility for the group and, at the same time, encouraging and growing all group members to take responsibility for themselves. Therefore, I think it is very important to practice these skills on a small scale first, for example to supervise student research projects.
Later in a career, it depends on your personal inclinations about how far you want to climb up the ladder. If you want to take on this responsibility, further training in communication and group psychology is a good way to learn how a group can work well together. I have attended various further training courses from which I can take new aspects for my daily work. The most important thing for me was the realization that I must be authentic as a leader so that my team can accept me as such.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?
Even if you are totally nervous, be yourself. Be authentic! Do not try to give the answers you assume are expected. Because then it can happen that you get a job that does not suit you and that hinders you in your personal development. You can only do your best and stay healthy when you feel comfortable and happy.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I am in the middle of this “next step”. When I joined asphericon in 2010 as an optical designer, the company’s transition from OEM manufacturer to solution provider began. Over the last six years, I have contributed to this process by establishing the Applications Department, which consists of optical and mechanical design, optical characterization, integration and technology development. This exciting time is now culminating in a promotion to vice president, strategy and innovation. In this position, I am responsible for all R&D activities at asphericon and strategic product development. I am extremely excited about taking on this new task!
If you weren't in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
When I was at school, I always wanted to be a doctor. I am still fascinated by the human body and the complex interplay of all its parts. Some time ago, I started reading about epigenetics and molecular medicine. This resonates perfectly with my physics background—studying the “building blocks of life” to better understand the overall picture.