In this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Dr. Javier Solis. Javier is a research professor and heads the Department of Non-linear, Ultrafast and Nano-scale Photonics at the Instituto de Optica (IO), National Research Council of Spain (CSIC). In addition to leading the Ultrashort Laser Pulse Laboratory of the Laser Processing Group at IO since 1992, Javier served as IO’s deputy director from 2000 to 2003 and as director from 2003 to 2008. His current research interests include laser–matter interaction, laser processing for optical applications, micro-and nano-structuring of materials with ultrafast lasers, ultrafast dynamics studies, and non-linear optics.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I suppose my main motivation was curiosity. When I was a young physics student, I was rather good, but not a “brilliant guy,” let us say. After the first three years, I had to decide what specialty to take for the M.Sc. The most brilliant guys chose fundamental physics or astronomy, but I did not consider myself good enough for that, and so I went for materials physics and made a fantastic discovery. I was amazed at how materials behavior could be understood on a physical basis and how the responses of materials can be modified and designed for a given application.
After finishing my M.Sc., the curiosity for understanding how to modify and control the response of materials led me to enroll in a Ph.D. program on laser–matter interaction and phase-change optical recording.
Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?
Of course, things do not always go the way you want—experiments do not work, and you cannot find the reason it does not work, funding is insufficient … that can be pretty frustrating. It might sound strange, but many times, I have found that the best way of overcoming those bad feelings is to continue working hard. Then, some part of the work starts giving you some satisfaction, even a small amount, and you start to enjoy the work again.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
When you are a student early in your career, somebody should tell you two things:
- Try to make a balanced life. A professional career is very important for personal fulfillment, but it is not everything. There are other aspects of life that are equally important, like friendship, empathy or humaneness.
- If something does not work after some time, it is better to think about it than to continue insisting that it should work.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
Science conferences and other networking events are a must if you want to stay active in your research field. Still, given the proliferation of specialized conferences and the impossibility to attend all of them, my impression is that new forms of non-on-site communication and exchange will get more and more important.
Has there been a stand-out conference that really stuck with you or changed your perspective?
I have attended a few events of that kind. I have a particularly good memory of two events, one when I was a young student and another when I was already a more mature researcher. The first one was a Gordon Conference on laser–matter interaction. I was surrounded by really prominent researchers—people whose work I admired—and I learned a lot from their talks and informal conversations. The other was a NATO School on nonlinear optics that I attended because I was entering that field. It was an extremely useful and enjoyable immersion.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
The most important tip I got from my Ph.D. supervisor: If you attend any exchange event, like a research conference, try to participate as much as you can. Do not be shy. It is also important to remember that those guys you admire, the really brilliant and successful people, were once young researchers and are ordinary human beings. There may be exceptions, for sure, but normally, if you approach someone to seek advice or to exchange information, the response will be positive.
What tips do you have for effective collaboration in your field?
I have found several ways for setting up a collaboration. One is finding a common interest for solving a problem.
In other cases, you positively know that the potential collaborator you approach has the right tools for helping you (lab resources or techniques, knowledge, etc.), and you have to convince the other person to be interested in what you propose. Still, the most fascinating part of this business is that in many cases you find some personal affinity with your potential collaborator, I sometimes call that good personal chemistry, and then collaboration naturally emerges. Something very important is that satisfaction in a collaboration, especially in long-term ones, rests on mutual confidence.
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 over the years that you have to carefully listen to the people you supervise. There are many occasions in which very valuable ideas are there if you give the person in front of you the opportunity to express themselves. Many times, I have made the mistake of interrupting my students when they were providing unclear arguments; that is the moment to help your student to clarify the message and find the valuable information behind the actual speech.
I learned from my mentor, Prof. Carmen Afonso, that you must never demand from the people you supervise more than what you demand from yourself. You cannot ask for commitment if you do not show self-commitment.
How do you define success in your career?
That is a very difficult definition; everyone likes recognition, but enjoying what you do is likely more important. I suppose that success is making a work that is relevant for your professional community and, at the same time, keeping a reasonable amount of enjoyment.
How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?
The assumption of leadership roles is an important part of career development. When you are not a young researcher anymore, you obviously cannot spend ten hours a day running experiments in the lab, but you have an accumulated experience that can be extremely useful for others.
The adoption of leadership roles should be a more or less natural step to becoming a mature professional; however, leadership skills are not innate and need to be developed. Personally, I have not used any “predesigned” strategies to hone my leadership skills, which is something I see as almost a mistake when I look back. I have learned on the way. There are many skills, though, that can be learned from professionals, such as how to facilitate collaborative work, deal with conflicts or foster team building. These tools can be of real help for young scientists in their career development.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?
Before the job interview, think of what your expectations out of it are; then assess up to what extent of what the job is proposing really fulfils your expectations. During the interview, be sincere and request all of the information that you think is relevant to determine if there is a reasonable compromise between what the role, or employer, is proposing and your expectations and skills.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
Being responsible for a research lab, I would like to achieve a level of funding sufficient to develop a long-term, five or six years long research plan on micro- and nano-structuring of materials with ultrafast lasers, in particular on fs-laser-induced ion-migration effects.
If you were not in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
I would have loved to be a master watchmaker: designing, building and restoring clocks. I love old clock mechanisms!