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Danuta Sampson

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with 2017 OSA Ambassador Danuta Sampson. Danuta is a research fellow at the University of Surrey, U.K. Prior to joining University of Surrey, Danuta obtained her Ph.D. at the Nicolaus Copernicus University, Poland, and held a research fellow position at the Lions Eye Institute and the University of Western Australia, Australia.

Danuta’s main research focuses on the design and construction of optics-based instruments for biology and ophthalmology, non-invasive angiography, study of blood flow and developing image-processing methods for the visualization of subtle changes within the retina. Beyond research, Danuta is involved in many outreach programs aimed at raising the general public’s interest in optics and science.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

In primary school, I was lucky enough to join the astronomy club at the age of 11. For a girl living in a village of 200 people, going to country-school, and not having too many opportunities, the chance to explore the “big world” of astronomy was something of a WOW! Being able to access fascinating books on the topic, use telescopes to look at the sky, meet other people passionate about the stars—it was a mind-blowing experience for a young person. It attracted me to science and scientists and, as a result, many years later, I became a researcher.

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

One of the research topics that I have explored is the use of optical coherence tomography for imaging and characterizing the microvasculature in the human body. My research is conducted at the interfaces of optics, biomedical engineering, signal processing, biology and clinical medicine.

I am largely an expert in two of these fields, and I rely more on my colleagues/collaborators for the others. The multidisciplinary research environment and working towards new methods to support early diagnosis of vasculature-related diseases makes me feel very excited about what I do.

Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?

As a university physics undergraduate student, I was told many times that physics is not for girls. An example of the discrimination that I faced is that only I and my female colleague, the only two girls in a group of 25 students, would be called to the blackboard to solve physics problems each week; the tutors were very determined to prove publicly that physics is not for girls.

We not only survived but graduated, while 18 male students from our cohort did not. What helped us to persevere was, and still is, the belief that challenges are what make life interesting, and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.

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

Definitely the conferences and networking events organized on the periphery of scientific meetings are the best way to stay connected with the field. Moreover, professional websites and social media play important roles nowadays. I would also say that taking a collaborative approach to research is a great way to stay engaged.

Of the conferences you’ve attended, has there been a stand-out topic/session/interaction that really stuck with you or changed your perspective?

Scientifically not yet, but I am looking forward getting inspired in future. Privately yes – I have met my husband!

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student?

I would have appreciated it if somebody had told me to be tougher, more confident and have the capacity to say no occasionally. Being tough and more confident helps a lot in building your position in a competitive scientific environment. Being able to say no decreases your chances of being taken for granted and, therefore, helps to ensure you are always motivated and inspired to help others.

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

As a mentee, I have learned that the important thing about being a leader is to motivate and inspire others and help them to achieve more than you do. As a mentor, I have learned that, at each stage of your career, there is always something you can offer to others that will be appreciated and make a difference. 

What are daily habits that help you to be successful?

I think that the most important habit that helps me to feel successful in my professional life is keeping a good work/life balance. I try to find time each day for activities that I like outside of academia. For me, this means spending fun time with my family, cooking, baking, gardening, singing, playing the guitar, writing songs and hiking.

What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?

Be passionate about your first job, believe in your potential and do your best during the interview (no need to be the best). If you don’t get it—don’t worry too much. Perhaps there is a better job waiting for you and this first interview was important to help you better prepare for the dream-job interview. Always think positive and look forward finding your perfect job.

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

My long-term career aspiration is to become a research group leader. I would like to see my future research group working in the field of eye health, with a focus on translational science, and on developing new optics-based imaging solutions that will identify better biomarkers of eye disease, as well as supporting efforts towards personalized medicine. I would also like to see my group strongly involved in outreach and other public engagement activities.

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

Oh! That’s a difficult question to answer. The more I have learned about myself and about the world, the more things inspire me and catch my attention. I can picture myself in so many professions, e.g., a movie songwriter, journalist and photographer for National Geographic, designer of educational toys for children, school teacher in rural parts of the world, or even a pastry chef, following in my mum’s footsteps. And the list can keep going. But let’s stop here. For now, I am a scientist—it was a great choice and I love it.