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Joel Villatoro

In this installment of Senior Member Insights we talk with Joel Villatoro. Joel is currently an Ikerbasque research professor at the University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain.

Prior to joining the University of the Basque Country, Joel was a research fellow in industrial photonics at Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies, Birmingham, U.K., and a researcher at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), Barcelona, Spain. He has also held research posts at the Centro de Investigaciones en Optica A.C., León, Mexico, the University of Valencia, Spain, and the Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

Joel’s research interests include interferometric sensors based on standard, multicore and photonic-crystal fibers, applications of sensors in real-world environments, and development of micro- and nano-sensors for biomedical applications.

What paths have you traveled on your career journey that came as a surprise or were unexpected?

I started my career doing theoretical work, although I’ve had always interest in experimental work, particularly on miniature devices. After obtaining my Ph.D. degree from National Institute for Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics, Puebla, Mexico, I expected to find a position as a physics teacher at some university in Mexico. In fact, I applied for some advertised positions and attended some interviews. However, to my surprise, I was offered a postdoc position in the USA to work on optical-fiber sensors! I did not hesitate to do the paperwork for such a position and I moved to Cleveland, Ohio. There, I discovered how fascinating experimental work was.

The impact that my work on interferometric optical-fiber sensors has had so far is another thing I did not expect. It was a nice surprise to receive an e-mail from OSA saying that one of my papers published in Optics Letters is “within the 15 most-cited articles over the last 8 years.”  

Do you have any advice for dealing with a particularly challenging colleague or supervisor?

I have worked for universities and R&D centers in four different countries; in all of them, I have worked with challenging people. I believe your self-esteem and professionalism are the key to dealing with such people.

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

I read papers published in reputed journals almost every day. Most such papers are related to my field, but I also read papers from other fields. Frequently, I analyze patents and the technical details of new products and read many papers and research proposals as a reviewer. Every year, I try to attend to one or two top photonics conferences, where I interact with colleagues, students and the R&D staff of companies.

How has networking changed for you since you first began your career?

I believe networking has changed a lot since I began my career. Nowadays, networking is much easier. Social media are available to anybody, at anytime, in any part of the planet.

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?

I would have liked to have been given advice on the importance of networking and of complementary skills, such as how to write technical papers, patents, or research proposals, to speak in public, etc.

Also, I would have liked to have talked with my supervisor or other experienced researchers about protection of intellectual property and about how important it is to analyze in detail the prior art of the topic you are working on.

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

As a mentor, I have learned to be extremely patient and to develop skills to help my students to exploit the talent and potential they have. I have also learned the huge responsibility mentors have and how rewarding mentoring is.

Having a mentor can make a big difference in your career. A mentor can help a lot with publishing works in journals of repute, protecting intellectual property, and developing international connections and collaborators, which assists one in achieving international visibility or find a good position in academia or in the industry.

What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?

I tend to plan my activities on a weekly or monthly basis. So every week or month, I have some “deliverables.” I always try to do things before the deadline and not lose the focus.

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

I am happy with the work and position I have now, but I am also open to facing new challenges or to assuming new responsibilities in the academia or the industry.

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

I’d probably be an English or language teacher. Language teaching was a career I considered some years ago. I used to live close to a language school; it was fascinating to hear students talking in Italian, French, English or Russian.