For this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Pavel Peterka. Pavel is currently a senior research scientist at the Institute of Photonics and Electronics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Since 2007, he has taught a one-semester course on fiber lasers and amplifiers at the Czech Technical University in Prague.
Before joining the Czech Academy of Sciences, Pavel worked at Laboratoire de Physique de la Matière Condensée (LPMC), CNRS - Université de Nice – Sophia Antipolis, Nice, France on thulium-doped fibers. His research interests cover numerical modeling and spectroscopic characterization of rare-earth-doped fibers and development of specialty fibers and components for fiber lasers.
How have things that you didn’t expect—surprises—shaped your work and career?
I feel quite comfortable in a life without surprises, but naturally life brings many. In fact, the achievements I appreciate the most were partly a result from errors or even accident.
One example of this was our first observations of the self-sweeping of wavelength in fiber lasers in 2008. At the time it looked as if a magician snatched the laser line and pulled it slowly back and forth, back and forth, in perfectly regular manner. It was something that was very perplexing to us, and my first thought was that the spectrum analyzer was broken. Although this self-sweeping has yet to be fully elucidated, it is currently very useful in several applications. For example, it helps explain mode instabilities (both longitudinal and transversal) in fiber laser devices, and it also finds use in high-resolution spectroscopy.
Another example of an unexpected result lies in our attempts at predicting the behavior of multimode optical pumps in cladding-pumped fiber lasers. Despite a long tradition in fiber laser modeling, it was only recently that we reported a rigorous modeling approach which accounts for the effect of bending and twisting of such fiber lasers, which was surprisingly neglected in previous analyses. It is a very illustrative approach which can certainly help anyone who designs high-power fiber lasers.
Do you have any advice for dealing with a particularly challenging colleague or supervisor?
Accept the fact that people are different. Dealing with particularly challenging colleagues or supervisors has taught me to accept the many different natures of people. If someone doesn't like the way I work and communicate, it is better to let it be and not to push them, or yourself, to change. Also, asking one’s own conscience helps avoid unnecessary self-blaming and helps to resist being manipulated.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field, and how has networking changed for you since you first began your career?
I have been very lucky to have participated in several networking projects, meetings and workgroups, including European Actions COST, the European Technology Platform Photonics21, task groups of NATO Science and Technology Organization, Engineering Academies’ symposia, and workshops of regional optical societies. I consider these resources to be highly important, and often even more inspiring than conferences, although conferences are also an excellent source of inspiration.
I have a strong feeling that, when compared to the beginning of my career, networking activities are now much more open to young professionals. Early-stage researchers are far more promoted than before, which I believe is a positive change.
What is one question you had as a student/early professional that never seemed to be answered? Have you found the answer?
One question in particular, most likely asked by many others, was if lasers would ever help obtain “clean” energy. It seems that mankind has not given up, although the path to achieve this goal looks to be slow and uncertain.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
I have learned that whenever I think my explanation for a problem is sufficiently detailed, it is usually not the case. Rather, I find it best to let others say what’s going on in their own words, where further joint discussion will then often lead to improvement in tackling the task. The most important tasks should be agreed upon and written down. But I am always happy to be surprised by my colleagues, and it happens much more often that one would think!
What I learned from my mentor that works: nothing can be obtained without asking. “A lazy mouth is a bare misfortune”—that is literal translation of a Czech proverb. Its English equivalent could be “The lame tongue gets nothing”.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
Fast walks in the fresh air, and relaxing from the "social bubble" of the lab in the micro world of children, the local community, or with a couple of close friends. One thing that does not contribute to success is working under heavy load and stress: it may result in anger and damage to some equipment. Sometimes it helps to change the type of work for a while, and although one may think that it is better and faster to do a task by oneself, a better solution is often to share the work within the team.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I look forward to running several experiments, both experimental and numerical. I would be delighted if more results, including the development of devices or even inventions, can be accomplished by my younger colleagues. It really would be a reward—to see a continuous growth, usefulness, and future of the laboratory.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
A pilot, of course! I really admired this profession when I was a little boy. I read piles of books about pilots. I made many little models of planes and got practice in making tiny, precision gadgets. I appreciate this now while working in fiber optics. Unfortunately, I could not learn to react fast. Fast reactions and eagle eyes are a prerequisite for pilots. So being a pilot was only a dream of a little boy. Other than that, another alternative is in civil engineering, a career that I would have felt well with.