In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Camille-Sophie Brès. Camille-Sophie is an associate professor of electrical engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Born in France, she obtained her bachelor degree from McGill University, Canada, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Princeton University, USA, and held a postdoctoral position at the University of California, San Diego, USA.
Camille-Sophie’s research is on the engineering of linear and nonlinear photonic waveguiding systems and subsystems for efficient light generation with enhanced functionalities. She has served on the technical program committees of many conferences and is the recipient of three European Research Council grants and the 2016 European Optical Society Award for Early Career Women in Photonics.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
It’s a little bit hard to say, but I think it came very early on. As a kid, I was already mostly playing with construction toys and enjoyed building things out of random objects. Then in school, I was interested in science and particularly keen on math and physics. I enjoyed learning about fundamental laws, which could explain many of the phenomena we see and use in our everyday lives.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I am an engineer by training and run an experimental photonics laboratory. What I particularly enjoy is seeing how fundamental physics and practical applications come together—how, despite all previous work, we can still discover new phenomena and find new applications. Overall, with my current work, I keep learning, discovering and being amazed at what we can do. All this keeps me going.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
It is very important to stay active and engaged. I find that professional conferences are excellent resources to do that. Many events, such as workshops and social events, are often organized in parallel to conferences that really bring people together. I also like to visit colleagues whenever I am traveling, and invite them to come give seminars.
Of the conferences you’ve attended, has there been a stand-out topic/session/interaction that really stuck with you or changed your perspective?
I can’t think of a particular event. I have interesting interactions at every conference I go to.
But I do remember, very well, the first conference that I attended to give a talk as a Ph.D. student. I was quite worried. I have learned a lot from that experience—in particular to be well prepared, to be ready to face criticism and to defend your work—but also that there are many facets to my research field. I also discovered a whole community of people that are supportive and interested in what I do.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
When I was a Ph.D. student, I always felt a bit intimidated and networking was difficult. Now, being further along my career, I realize that I particularly enjoy meeting students and young professionals.
So, first, I want to remind early-career professionals that networking is not only useful but also interesting and fun. Surrounding yourself with mentors, models or just people you can talk to about ideas, questions and problems is key. Support is everything. Starting to network early is important; you will build relationships over time and you will see the same people repeatedly at conferences, events, etc. So keep in touch and do not be shy.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
A great piece of advice everyone should hear when they start out is to build and maintain relationships, to be active in the community. Networking is very important, so surround yourself with knowledgeable mentors and people you relate to. It’s important for many aspects of a career, but also to seek advice if you face challenges and to simply share experiences.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
First, I have learned that mentoring is not easy. Running an experiment or deriving equations can be more straightforward than mentoring! But I have also learned that everyone needs support, and being able to listen or simply being present makes a big difference. Since everyone is different, and there is no one solution that works for all when it comes to mentoring, it is important that a dialogue be established.
I feel lucky to have had great mentors throughout my career, during my Ph.D., my postdoc and even now. They have taught me many things, from not only the science side but also the human side, such as to be passionate, rigorous, and curious, to be fair, to rely on others, how to lead a group, etc.
What are daily habits that help you to be successful?
I try to be organized and efficient in what I do, I really take the time to think before acting. With my kids still quite young, I do not have infinite time on my hands, so I really have to be efficient once I am in the office. I also delegate and ask for help when possible. A key to success in my opinion is to learn how to prioritize. We are asked many things and have many responsibilities, so prioritizing, identifying key opportunities and accepting that sometimes we cannot do it all is necessary.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I am very happy (and proud) with my career path so far and to where it got me. My plan is simple: to pursue in that same direction and to work hard on making an impact, both as a researcher and a teacher. I look forward to leading a well-established and renowned group in the field of nonlinear waveguide optics, to work on even more ambitious projects and to keep proudly representing my field of research and women in photonics.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
I cannot think of anything else. But, before getting into sciences and academia, I wanted to be a pilot.