Ekaterina Borisova

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Ekaterina Borisova. Ekaterina is a deputy director of the Institute of Electronics, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (IE-BAS), Bulgaria, where she is also an associate professor and head of the biophotonics laboratory. As a research scientist, Ekaterina leads, coordinates and participates in nationally funded projects, bilateral international projects, and several EU-level projects and research initiatives. In addition to teaching at IE-BAS, Ekaterina is also a lecturer at Sofia University, Bulgaria; at Plovdiv University, Bulgaria; at Technical University–Sofia, Bulgaria; and at Saratov State University, Russia. Her primary focus is on the biomedical applications of photonics, biophotonics, biomedical spectroscopy, photophysics and photochemistry.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

Curiosity—to obtain knowledge about everything around us: how it works, what it is inside, and what are the laws, the reasons, that it is exactly a given way. The beauty of physics is related to its universal nature and its harmony with nature; it can give explanations about everything in the universe if, and when, the scientists find and describe the laws and processes hidden behind it. I wanted to be a part of this process of endless studies.

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

The most pleasant and most interesting for me is to be in the lab and to work “with my hands” in experiments. Especially, if the experiments are successful and follow the line of preliminary thoughts and hypotheses of what we thought we should expect from the results.

The most exciting, and probably most responsible and difficult, task is the work with real patients in clinical investigations of novel diagnostic modalities that we developed. When I can see that my research is really helping—not hypothetically, but in a real situation—to improve the diagnostic accuracy to find the proper diagnosis.

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

Performing research means searching for something new in scientific domains that have been scrutinized for many years or even centuries. It is not easy to catch a new idea, to find new results or to develop something that has not existed up to this moment. Of course, one could be that lucky person who will make a breakthrough in a given direction and shine like a new star on the horizon of science. It is so rare, but one should not give up. Science is freedom and creativity, just like art, and you can express yourself with your work: play with the experiments and formulae, develop your own directions, even new fields, and go through new ways. The scientific journey itself is an adventure.

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

I attend professional conferences several times a year, and I make sure to always spare time for social and networking activities there. Most successful projects and collaborations start with a short discussion with colleagues in the sidelines of a given conference. I also try to keep an open connection to my university teaching and while preparing lectures for my students. Scientific social networks, like ResearchGate, and professional communities such as OSA and SPIE, also allow me to keep in touch with the most recent results achieved in the domain of my research expertise.

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

To participate in the conferences, research seminars, summer schools and social events related to them. At these events, you will meet your future collaborators, as they are the same young researchers that you are, and through the years will grow as professionals along with you. You will also meet the most prominent scientists in your field, as well as those that are already “big scientists.” Ask them questions; do not be shy! Present your posters, discuss your research with them, ask about their own results and the lectures that they just presented on the same topics.

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

When teaching and lecturing to undergraduate and Ph.D. students, the process is like a tennis play—if the students are not active, there is no game, even if you send them hundreds of passes.

For my own team, it is important to delegate tasks and to give some freedom to every member involved in a given project. It is not wise to try to control everything, and such freedom allows me to obtain new ideas from my colleagues as well as ways of solving some tasks, which, while different from my own vision, are also creative and original.

From my mentors, it depends on the good or the not-very-good ones that I have met in my life. From the good ones, I have learned how to do things; from the not-so-good mentors, I learned how not to do some things. Every knowledge and skill, every type of professional and training experience, is helpful and beneficial for future growth.

What are daily habits each day that help you to be successful?

First, to read a lot. Every day I read at least one article in my field of research expertise, more if possible. I also alternate the scientific articles with fiction and poetry to give my mind balance.

Second, to listen carefully. I listen carefully to the colleague who comes with a request for advice, or with a description of a work problem that needs to be solved as well as to the student with his/her questions about the experiments being developed. And I listen carefully to my friends and family to balance my work with the most important thing in life: the people close to me.

Third, to learn. I try to understand something new or different, to explore and broaden the field of my knowledge or to upgrade my existing knowledge in a given field.

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

To be a leader of a group means responsibility at first glance—to develop a project, to find funding, to make the report of the results, to organize the work of the team members, to train and mentor students and junior members, and so on. This also means to take care about the all aspects of a given problem by thinking about it from all possible points, which gives a broader perspective of thoughts and possible solutions.

To be a good leader also means being well organized and planning for a long period of time in the future. I try to understand how the successful scientists arrange their work and time and whether I could use some of their instruments and ways of management. I try to find my own way and to interact with my team in a positive and fruitful manner for the good of the whole lab. It is very important to dream—to dream how to improve your work, your team, your lab—to become better, more successful, and in a harmony. I am still learning how to do that properly—and trying every day.

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

I am already the head of the biophotonics laboratory at IE-BAS. I do have a plenty of research plans—to raise the number of optical spectroscopic techniques and instruments that we use now for biological tissue investigations; to train new junior scientists and students in the field of biophotonics; to work for an enlargement of the role of spectroscopic techniques for early detection of cancer as primary and add-on tools in clinical diagnostics.

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

From childhood, I have always wanted to be a physicist and have studied hard to become one for many years. It is not easy to say what else I would like to be—when choosing which faculty I would want to enter in Sofia University (a long time ago!), I also passed the exams to be a student in the chemistry and biology faculties. But physics was always at the first place for me. Other interesting and exciting professions for me could be a medical doctor or a science fiction writer. I could imagine that I could be such a person.