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Marija Furdek

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Marija Furdek. Marija is an assistant professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Before joining Chalmers, she spent six years as postdoc, and then senior researcher, at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. She has also been a visiting researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, and Telecom Italia, Italy, and has served as a general chair of OSA Photonic Networks and Devices, part of the Advanced Photonics Congress since 2016.

Marija’s research includes the design of high-performance networks supporting next-generation services, encompassing issues related to optical network architecture, the data and the control plane of the network. Her ambition is to contribute to the development of optimized, cognitive and autonomous communication networks, with a focus on physical-layer security and resilience to a wide range of faults.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

That “aha” moment when everything falls into place and a clear picture of how something works emerges, the moment of truly understanding something for the first time, the feeling of being a bit more knowledgeable than the very moment before—that is what drew me to science in the first place.

What made me pursue a career in science was curiosity and a personal challenge as well. After high school—which was a general gymnasium and gave me broad knowledge not only of science but equally of humanities, history and arts—I chose the faculty of electrical engineering for the hardest and the most prestigious study program in my country. I thought that if I can finish that, I can do anything.

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

I am working on physical-layer security management in optical networks. These networks are the critical global infrastructure that underpins worldwide communications, but they are exposed to different security threats, which we don’t yet understand completely and don’t know how to counteract.

We are currently doing some very interesting experiments where we crash-test the optical network in the lab by subjecting it to different physical-layer attack methods aimed at disrupting the service. Then, we harvest the monitoring data collected at coherent receivers and analyze it with the help of machine learning to try to identify the signatures of different attack methods. Plugging this information into an analytical framework that I am working on could enable us to identify the physical location of the breach, even in large-scale networks spanning thousands of kilometers. In short, my goal is to facilitate the use of the optical network as an attack sensor and enable cognitive physical-layer security management.

Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?

A major turning point was starting my postdoc at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. I often talk to my peers about the massive importance of being given a chance to prove and develop ourselves, and I am extremely grateful that I was given the amazing opportunity to join the Optical Network Lab at KTH. I was hired to work on a European project, which took a clean-slate perspective to optical network architecture design, and my task was to develop network resiliency strategies. I could not have imagined a better environment to be in, fresh from my Ph.D. The project and the team were wonderful, and some of the collaborations long outlived the duration of the project.

The second turning point in my career happened in April 2019 when I became an assistant professor at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. Faculty positions are scarce and world-wide competition is fierce, so being selected for tenure-track in such a prestigious institution and becoming a part of the amazing working environment here thrills me.

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

Conferences and publications are definitely the number one resource in keeping up to speed with the evolution of the field.

When I attend a conference, I try to listen to as many talks as possible, but this is always a challenge in conferences with multiple parallel tracks and many overlapping interesting talks. That is why I love smaller events with a single-track program, where it is also easier to engage in face-to-face discussions with other researchers during breaks and socials. I also appreciate tutorial-type talks, interactive workshops or hands-on training type of events, which I participate in and organize sometimes.

In addition, I serve on the program committee of several cutting-edge conferences in my area. Through the process of defining the scope, reviewing submissions and discussing the final program with other committee members, I stay up to date with the evolution of topics and trends in the field.

I also follow the social media outlets and newsletters of relevant professional organizations, where I try to keep my interest network as wide as possible. Sometimes a novel technique from a different area can have a useful application in my area as well, or an advancement in another field has an important implication for the problems I am working on.

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?

I wish I had realized the immense importance of networking and establishing professional relationships sooner. I was lucky to have an excellent and very dedicated Ph.D. adviser who taught me a lot. Nonetheless, mentors at different institutions and career stages can provide valuable, fresh perspectives and insights into not just technical matters, but other professional and personal concerns as well. A strong network of confident and supportive colleagues makes it easier to cope with all of the challenges associated with a career in science.

What are daily habits that help you to be successful?

Balancing all of my professional commitments while maintaining a good, quality personal life is a challenge. I am continuously working on improving the organization of my time. Usually, I keep a list of tasks with their deadlines, priorities and time requirements, which I use to make short- and long-term work plans. I am still learning not to be too harsh on myself when the whole day’s plan blows up because of some ad hoc issues that I had not counted on.

I also try to spend as much time as possible in nature and exercise regularly, but the best way for me to recharge batteries is by spending time with my family and friends, relaxing and having a good laugh.

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

I am super excited about making a good start at my new job and working towards tenure. I am in the process of hiring Ph.D. students and am thrilled to be starting a small team to investigate and further develop the optical network security concepts I have been working on lately. The next step is to get tenure and build a larger group over time.

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

I would be a biologist helping to save endangered species and habitats, and a wildlife photographer in my spare time. I love nature and all of the creatures living in it. It is impossible to walk in a forest, or swim in a river or sea, and not feel connected to all living things. We should cherish and protect them more.