In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Xiaoyan Pang. Xiaoyan is an associate professor at the School of Electronics and Information, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xi’an, China. Prior to joining Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xiaoyan received her Ph.D. from Vrije University Amsterdam, Netherlands. Her research interests include singular optics, 3D structured fields and coherence theory.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
When I was a little kid, like all other children, I was curious about everything around me—for instance, why can we see ourselves in a mirror, how does the block float on the water, where do rainbows come from, etc. I tried to find these answers any way that I could. My grandma told me that these things were all natural—the myths and legends said that the world was controlled by a mysterious force that we could not touch. But science shows that everything can be understood.
Science is so cool and fascinating. When it helps us find an answer to one question, ten more questions arise, and as we dig for the answers to these questions, miraculous things will slowly emerge.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
The exciting part mainly comes from the creation and the unknown. Doing research is an act of exploration—every day could bring something very different and special.
The most interesting thing, I think, is meeting and working with people from different countries. My students (besides Chinese students) are from Mongolia, France and Pakistan, among other countries, and I conduct research with scholars from the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Australia and South Africa. Although we have different cultural backgrounds, we all love optics and do research together.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
First, overcome shyness. In a certain sense, science is about communication: we need to give talks, write articles and proposals, communicate with a variety of audiences and educate students. Your words and your ideas are contributions to the science community, and you will also benefit from them. Don’t be shy.
Second, for good networking, you need to make yourself valuable. For instance, when you have the chance to present your work in a conference, try your best to make your presentation fascinating. If anyone asks questions about your research, you should not only be very kind and patient while speaking with them, but also try to give them more valuable things, such as recommending articles or books. If you ask someone a question (either through email or face-to-face), then also let them know how important their work is to you. If possible, you could invite them to give a talk to your group or introduce some other information that would be helpful for their research.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
First, become a member of an academic society like OSA—this is really helpful. As a member of OSA, I also subscribe to Optics & Photonics News and the “Top Downloads” of some OSA journals (like OL, OE, JOSA A and JOSA B). From the regular emails from these subscriptions, it’s easy to know what’s new in my field. Also, OSA will send me conference or special-issue information, which is quite useful to stay active and engaged with the Society.
There are also some professional networks—such as ResearchGate and Academia—where you can post your research and projects, follow scholars or interesting articles, discuss with people in the same research area, and share ideas.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
In my opinion, analytical skills are very important in all fields of science. Also, communication skills. Whether we work alone or in a team, we all need to communicate with others.
Lastly, language skills are important. According to some research reports, language is still a major barrier to global science. For a non-native English speaker, like me, one not only needs to learn how to speak English, but also the difference between colloquial English and scientific English.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
I would recommend that these young scientists use first principles thinking to consider their current situation. This means asking yourself: what is my main motivation to do my current work? What is the essence of this career, and do I really like this career? You may find that this work is your true love.
Secondly, you need to analyze the main reasons for your current situation and then try different ways to solve your problems. At the same time, you should keep in mind that everyone will have problems throughout a career, and this is quite common. It’s okay if your answer is: no, I do not like this kind of work. Then your second task is to re-design your career and find other work that you really like.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Science is cumulative. Do not worry, and do not be anxious. Step by step, your knowledge will accumulate, and you can do very good research.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
I like reading, and even when I don’t have time to read I will listen to audio books on my commute. These books include various genres, such as celebrity biographies (like Isaac Newton), history and culture (like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind), and psychology (like The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind). Books help me understand more about the mechanics of this world and the relations of people and myself. Reading also brings me peace in the face of difficulties.
I also enjoy dancing. I’m not an expert, but whenever I am very happy or unhappy, if there is no one else around, I will dance to music. Dancing can relieve fatigue and reminds me of the beauty of life.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would she be most surprised by?
Since I am Chinese, I think that maybe my younger self would be surprised by the increasing international research collaboration I’ve participated in. Now, more and more Chinese students go abroad, and most Chinese scholars cooperate with international research groups. She would also be surprised by the number of foreign students and professors in my lab.