In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Anna Bezryadina. Anna is an assistant professor at California State University Northridge, USA, and chairs OSA’s Optical Trapping and Manipulation in Molecular and Cellular Biology (BT) technical group. Prior to joining California State University Northridge, Anna was a postdoctoral researcher at San Francisco State University, USA, and at the University of California San Diego, USA. Her research interests include biophotonics, nonlinear and quantum optics, optical trapping, nanotechnology and microscopy.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I was surrounded by science from early childhood, since my dad was a physicist and my mom was a mathematician. My love for math and physics grew during my high school and university years. Cracking and solving problems gave me an emotional euphoria, which made me almost addicted to solving problems all night.
The first time I had a chance to work with a laser during my second year at university, I knew immediately that I wanted to be an experimentalist working with optics. Experiments are always correct; they just often have many unwanted effects, which can dominate over the results. Nevertheless, if a scientist can untangle unwanted effects, he or she can find something new, like a hidden treasure. To continue to enjoy solving experimental optics challenges, I decided to pursue science as my future career.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
The most interesting and exciting part of my current work is my time spent in the lab. Working with optics equipment and lasers gives me a purpose and reinforces why I pursued an academic career. Aligning lasers for experiments always gives me a nice, calm feeling and helps to organize my thoughts for short and long-term strategies.
Now, I perform almost all of my experiments together with students. During these hours, I can teach them small experimental tricks to overcome challenges and help them to develop their own approaches on how to handle effective work in the lab. In addition, doing experiments with students helps me to estimate the time frame for the projects and to adjust the long-term goals for my next projects.
Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?
One of my biggest career challenges was having a child during my second year of my Ph.D. Before that, I felt unstoppable; I just needed to work efficiently for a few more hours and everything could be achieved. With a small child and a long commute to work, I just did not have enough time. I felt a need and a social pressure to make a perfect job of raising and educating my child in the same way that I approached experiments. I saw that I could not keep up the same standard of lab work as before and started to question if I should be a Ph.D.
I was lucky to have a good PI, Professor Sue Carter, who had two children herself. She was very understanding of my situation and she gave me a theoretical project for half of a year, so I could work mostly from home. Then she moved me to do my Ph.D. research at a NASA research center instead of my university, which allowed me to drive from home instead of living near campus during weekdays.
Without her help, I am not sure I would have obtained my Ph.D. My challenges of balancing family and research made me determined to become a professor, so I can help other women scientists and students with mental support and advice when they need it.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
To stay active and engaged in my field, I try to attend at least two to three conferences per year. I like to attend at least a couple of invited talks at other subfields’ sessions per conference day, where I can learn new concepts and techniques, which can be relevant to my research.
Attending conference networking events and going for lunches/dinners is a great time to catch up and bond with colleagues, as well as meet new potential collaborators. In addition, while talking in-person, I can discuss time-consuming questions and learn new research nuances, which are often not included in conference talks or papers.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
My main advice for early-career professionals is to overcome their shyness and start talking with people whom they do not know. You can talk to your groupmates at any time, but at conferences, you have a possibility to meet people from other parts of the world.
Coffee breaks and standing in a line at a conference are good places where you can have a short chat with a stranger. Next time, when you meet the same person, he is already not a stranger and you can talk longer or arrange a lunch if you have similar research interests.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
I wish people had told me earlier how important it is to have a professional network. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I did not want to talk with others about research. I thought that working hard in the lab and research results are the only important things in a science career. I thought that talking with others about research was a waste of time.
Only later did I realize that the ability to express and deliver ideas and results to others is as equally important as the results themselves. By talking with colleagues, results and ideas can be polished to higher standards. In addition, colleagues can help save time by gently pointing out that some of the ideas, which I thought are innovative, have been done before by others under different terminological names.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
For me, a good mentor is a person who can give good professional advice and support emotionally, when students need it. Just a few words of support can make mentees happier and more successful: “You did a great job with this task,” or “I believe you can do it.” Also, I have realized that finding each student’s strength, specific areas of interest, ways of learning, and what motivates them to pursue research, can strengthen the student’s interest in science and to improve his or her time commitment to the research at hand.
What are daily habits that help you to be successful?
To be successful with my work, I keep a list on my phone of tasks, organized into two categories: one with the issues that need to be done in the next couple of days and another one with issues that need to be done in several weeks. As a new task comes, I immediately enter it on my phone before I forget it.
Also, to prevent piling up of tasks in the list, I always try to finish small issues immediately or as the first thing in a morning.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would they be most surprised by?
If my ten-years-younger self was looking at my career now, I would be surprised to know how little time professors have to do experimental research by themselves after so many years of training!
If you were not in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
If I did not find myself as a scientist, I would have liked to be a park ranger and to work on protecting endangered animals and plants. I like to spend time alone with nature, and nature desperately needs our help to preserve it.