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Naven Chetty

For this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Naven Chetty. Naven is currently the College Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), South Africa. His research focuses on physics education and the use of lasers in atmospheric, environmental and biomedical physics. Currently he is working on creating tissue phantoms for use in biomedical sciences to help investigate the effects of lasers on cancer tissues.

Naven is also a strong advocate for the right to learn and the need for redress in the scientific arena in South Africa. He leads the access programs at UKZN, which enable disadvantaged students to enroll at the university and provide significant amounts of support to ensure that the students can join the next generation of academics and researchers.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

Coming from a disadvantaged country, it was difficult to figure out what to do career wise. When I first started studying, the opportunities were very limited, and I thought of engineering as that was where the funding was. Funding is a big problem in higher education.

After entering engineering, I found that I did not want to know the application—I wanted to know why we applied things the way we did. That is when I moved into physics research. I started working in molecular optics in the field of birefringence. I realized that it is a field that requires very specialized and expensive equipment, and research grants are not very forthcoming or easily accessible. So I tried to conduct my research using optics, but in low-cost applications.

What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?

Developing students and developing human potential. This shows that your work will continue and goes beyond just publishing in journals. We often forget in science that publications don’t reveal the impact you have, as only a few people will read a paper, but producing a graduate who is capable, keen and eager can spur a nation and continue the scientific endeavor. For me, the most rewarding part of my work is developing my students and watching them graduate.

What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?

Do what you find appealing and exciting and try to gel your career into that. You can always mold your research into something you find interesting or that has a balance or significance for you. This is easier than taking on a field you studied, just because you studied it. We are often compelled to take on what we studied even if we no longer find it interesting. You can pursue a different field of research than what you studied and make it your own. Strive to find something different and don’t be afraid to take risks.

A bigger challenge in research is becoming too focused on producing a publication. That shouldn’t be what research is about: it should be about finding the data and what does and doesn’t work. Know that even if you do not produce a paper, you’ve achieved something, even when the experiment doesn’t work.

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

Being a part of a professional society like OSA adds real value as it enables me to network with a whole range of people and to be at the forefront of research is being done worldwide through the journals. I can also take part of networking opportunities, the webinars, and so on. The conferences are particularly vital in keeping abreast of what is going on as I work in biomedical optics, which is a very fluid field, and being part of a society really helps with this.

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

Focus more on developing relationships with people, such as academics and researchers around the world, rather than just completely focusing on reading research papers. Developing relationships with the people will help you develop a better understanding of their research. Also, find mentors in fellow researchers who can help guide you toward making the best decisions for you.

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

Never assume anything. Assumptions are the biggest problem in how we mentor staff and young academics. I take it for granted that what I know would be known by someone else. The first thing I’ve had to learn is to break it down into what the person understands and what the limits are to their understanding.

Secondly, understand the people you are mentoring as individuals. Each mentee is different and how you interact with them is based upon their experiences. We are a multi-dynamic, multiracial and multicultural society. It is not just about what we are studying, in my case physics. Sometimes culture and race become an issue and you have to learn how to deal with that to be an effective mentor.

I would never want to be the type of mentor that I had, who tried to keep young academics and junior scientists down or to even have them leave the institution. I was first employed at a time when being a non-Caucasian meant that very few opportunities and only the worst offices were available. My vow at that point was to never hold back anyone that I supervise or mentor.

What are daily habits that help you to be successful?

Time management is the most important thing. It is easy to get bogged down during daily administration and dedicating enough time to all of the activities can be difficult, so scheduling is very important to have a balanced lifestyle. My routine is to do research at night when I can properly focus on reading papers and correcting theses, instead of during the day when I am distracted by daily tasks.

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

Leadership roles are vital in career development. If you are in leadership, you can shape the direction of your research as well as how you view the research and you can effect change. Some people are not meant for leadership, however, so make sure that you want to be a leader.

If you do aspire to leadership, make sure that you understand people and that you get the qualifications to be a good leader by studying and taking courses about public speaking, time management, people management, and how to be an effective leader. As new leadership methods come out, for instance performance management, try to see how the methods will benefit you as a leader and the organization. Try not to use the methods for punishment but for developing people, interacting with people, networking, etc.

If your ten-years-younger self were looking at your career now, what would they be most surprised by?

Moving towards professorship and being in management! These were never in my career path. I wanted to get a degree and a job and work and earn money. I did not see myself as an academic.

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

Medicine—that’s why I am a biomedical physicist!