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Gabrielle Thomas

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Gabrielle Thomas—a scientist at M Squared in Germany and a 2019 OSA Ambassador. Thomas has a Ph.D. in laser physics from Imperial College London, U.K., and a wide range of experience working in both academic and industrial environments, in fields including remote sensing, attoscience, quantum technology and biophotonics. Her current role at M Squared involves building innovation networks, spearheading new R&D projects and coordinating the expansion of the U.K.-based company’s German subsidiary.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

From a young age, I had a lot of questions about the world, how things work and why. Science seemed to have the most answers to my questions, so it was a natural choice for me to continue studying science beyond high school.

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

In my role as Innovation Ambassador for M Squared in Germany, I establish innovation networks with researchers and businesses, develop collaboration and project ideas, and drive forward our innovation activities across Europe. Our collaborators in quantum technology, biophotonics and chemical sensing are leading the way with cutting-edge research. It’s not only an honor to be part of their research story, it also allows me to indulge my deep interest in novel science and technology.

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

Generally, people are more than happy to talk about their work, be it their research, business activities or outreach, so don’t be afraid to engage and show your interest. People are open to being asked questions, just make sure to ask specific questions rather than general ones and actively listen to the answers. Remember that people’s time (including yours) is precious and often limited, so respecting people’s time is important in helping you to leave a positive impression.

Following an event, try sending your new contact an email afterwards to thank them for their time or to ask if they’d be willing to share the slides from their talk—it’s an effective way of maintaining the connection. And, at the next event, you’ll find that your new contact remembers you in a positive light!

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

I was once a reluctant social-media user, but in the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of being active on LinkedIn and Twitter. Engaging with people via these platforms has led to invited talks, exciting new collaborations and even new hires for M Squared! I’m also part of national and international innovation networks that help to grow my network and inspire new project ideas.

At conferences, I always try to attend the special sessions, panels or workshops, as they widen one’s network and broaden horizons. Although 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, one positive takeaway is the increased and easier access to scientific meetings and networking events. Benefits of these online events include reduced or waived registration fees, zero travel and post-event access to online content—more people than ever can participate and share knowledge. I’ve definitely appreciated the ability to engage in online meetings with people I might not normally encounter at “in-person” meetings, and it’s something I will continue to do in the future.

What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?

In any career, it’s helpful to be curious, and this is especially true for a role like mine. General curiosity about how things work and enthusiasm for learning about new technologies and innovations can be more valuable than one specific skill. Once you’ve established an interest in the technology, probably the most essential skill is the ability to communicate effectively with a wide audience. I’m often required to translate complex scientific concepts into something more widely understandable on short timescales.

It’s also necessary for me to liaise with international professors, company directors, funding organizations and local networks from diverse backgrounds, so diplomacy and sensitivity in communication is essential to maintaining a good reputation.

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

Your current position doesn’t have to be forever. Researching alternative paths can be daunting, but the act of applying for new roles helps you to learn more about what motivates you and what you’re interested in doing. I would also recommend reaching out to others who might have recently been in the same position as you—for example, the Optical Society’s Ambassador Program is a great resource for exactly this. Ambassadors come from different backgrounds and have diverse roles in academia, industry and entrepreneurship, and, importantly, they are happy to hear from you.

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

I wish someone had told me not to agonize over decisions about my career—the decisions you make now don’t dictate the rest of your working life. Every choice you make in relation to your career provides an opportunity to learn something about yourself, which is far more valuable than worrying about whether you’ve made the “right” decision.

What has been the most motivating factor throughout your career?

My career has provided me with many exciting twists and turns, but I’d have to say the most motivating aspect is learning about innovative scientific concepts and technologies and exploring how they can be used for societal good. It’s a privilege to work with cutting-edge deep tech and even more so to see how it can be used, for example, in advanced healthcare or to increase our understanding of climate change.

What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?

Outside of work, I enjoy baking (and of course sharing the baked goods with colleagues), wild swimming (even in cold water) and reformer Pilates. I’m the sort of person who finds it difficult to switch off from work completely, but these activities help to clear my mind and help me relax, which ultimately makes me better at my job and a friendlier colleague.

If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would she be most surprised by?

I used to be quite shy, so my former self would have found it surprising that I now confidently talk to a range of stakeholders about quantum technologies, advanced microscopy for applications like neuroscience, and chemical sensing—all fields that I would not consider to be my expertise. My confidence has grown, which has been helped enormously by having an employer who trusts me and enables me to make decisions about the direction in which I want to take my work.