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Winnie Ye

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Winnie Ye. Winnie is a professor of silicon micro/nanophotonics at Carleton University, Canada, and a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Nano-scale IC Design for Reliable Opto-Electronics and Sensors. She recently won the 2018 IEEE Women in Engineering Inspiring Member Award, the 2018 Engineering Medal for Research and Development from the Ontario Professional Engineers (PEO) and the PEO Ottawa Chapter's 2018 Engineering Excellence Award. Winnie also chairs OSA’s Optoelectronics Technical Group. Her expertise is in silicon photonics and its applications in telecommunications, data communication, biophotonics and renewable energy.

Could you tell me about what first interested you in pursuing science?

Both of my parents are professors in computer science, so from a very young age, I really liked science. As I pursued my education, I decided to apply my knowledge to science and became more focused on engineering in the later stage of my career.

You are currently a full professor and a Canada Research Chair. What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?

The most exciting part of my work is that I can see the things that I work on become a reality, become something that can solve real world problems. I think that really excites me because I can make an impact on society by bringing technology to consumers to improve the quality of life for society. Being a citizen in a huge world, any small steps and contribution to society is huge, exciting and fascinating to me.

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

Research is really two words, re- and search, so it means we are always in search of solutions. There are times that we encounter failure, experiments don’t go where we want, or the results are not what we are looking for. You build your research from these failed attempts and eventually success will happen. I think the biggest thing is to keep looking forward and treating failures as small steps towards your overall success. My one piece of advice is to never give up—be persistent and persevere with the idea and keep trying.

If your work is rejected by a journal publication or a conference, never be discouraged! It just means the committee you submitted to is not the right one for you. Keep a positive outlook, be confident with what you are doing and just keep trying. Eventually, you will shine.

You have to realize there are many, many people in scientific societies who want junior scientists to succeed. Early-career scientists need to leverage their connections, ask questions and get help from the people around them. Everyone has been through these stages of career development, so don’t be shy; be confident.

As a professor, what professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?

I attend a few professional conferences every year and participate in IEEE and OSA networking events. As the chair for an OSA technical group, I organize three webinars a year, which helps me to stay connected with experts in the field and to continuously learn new things.

My advice is to go to networking events, just to get to know people in the community. This is especially important for early career professionals, because they need opportunities to meet people in the field.

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

Early-career scientists and engineers are busy building their careers and focusing on their work, but they should also force themselves to make time to be part of scientific societies. By volunteering to be part of committees, they can actually organize networking events that will help them form first-person connections with leaders in their field.

Volunteering for societies really helped me early in my career and I continue to volunteer in various capacities. Also, just being in the committees of these societies makes you more visible in the broader community as people begin to recognize your name from the emails and correspondences to organize things.

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

I have found that early-career scientists and engineers really need a lot of encouragement and are not confident that they can make a difference. It is very important that mentors guide students and mentees to the right path and provide encouragement. As a mentor, I go out of my way to tell students that they have the ability to make a difference; they have the tools, knowledge and resources to be a contributor to society.

I learned from my mentors that our research job is not a job, it is a passion. I could see my mentors enjoy doing their passion and this was very useful for me. I also benefited from really good advice: “In today’s society, any complex problem requires an interdisciplinary approach, so keep your eyes open for opportunities for collaboration with people from different areas of expertise.” This has been really helpful to my career as a lot of my research is a direct result of interdisciplinary collaborations and networking with people around the world. With so many people working on similar research, participating in a bigger, interdisciplinary team really helps to be more visible in the broader community.

What are daily habits that help you to be successful?

This might not be a uniform approach, but what works for me is that first thing every morning, I draft a list to prioritize my tasks for the day. A good, positive attitude towards your work is also vital; so expect failure and treat it as a small stepping stone towards future success instead of being discouraged.

I also exercise every day. Work is a lot for your body, physically. When you get stuck on a problem and can’t figure out why an experiment is failing, just back away and head to the gym for a 30 minute swim or spinning class to give your mind a break. Making time for your mental and physical health helps you to keep going forward.

I also set aside time for volunteering work. A lot of people have helped me during my career, so it is very important to me to give back to those who can benefit from my expertise and advice through volunteering with various societies. You feel really positive and good about yourself after finishing an extracurricular activity that can help make a difference or have a positive impact on others.

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

Being good at doing research is important, but being vocal and visible about your work is also important. In today’s society, you have to be visible, and to be visible, you have to take a role in leadership. My advice is to go to conferences and give keynote speeches and volunteer to serve in executive committees of various organizations. I have been volunteering with societies since I was in graduate school. This has helped me acquire leadership and interpersonal skills that are beyond the skills of researching.

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

I am mostly surprised by the positive impact I have had on my students. I have received letters from my students telling me that “because of you, Professor, I decided to enter the research field of optics.” This is very surprising for me as I never thought to be an inspiration.

Seeing the technology I have worked on become a reality has also been surprising. When I started my career, I was working on future technologies that were not expected to be realized in the next 50 years, but with how technology has revolutionized, some of the things that I have worked on have become reality! Things like autonomous vehicles, which use lidar systems that I worked on, are still developing but have come into reality and are commercial products. My work went from being in the future to being used right now. Other researchers in my field are referencing my work in their work; it makes me feel really great to have that kind of impact on society and to be making a difference!

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

I really love what I do, I guess this is where my passion is. I would like to be an early-childhood educator because I feel teaching and influencing children at a young age is very important. There is a stereotype that being in science isn’t cool, so I would like to teach the students that we are all equal, so it is just as cool for both girls and boys to be scientists, engineers or doctors. Also, all scientists and engineers are not nerds, they really are cool!