In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Michelle L. Stock—the senior OEM business development manager for TOPTICA Photonics in North America. Stock began her career at IMRA America as a member of technical staff, helping to develop and market pioneering femtosecond fiber lasers. She then co-founded Arbor Photonics to introduce novel optical fibers for precision material processing, acquired by nLight in 2012. Through her work she has been involved in developing leading-edge optical fiber-based lasers and related products for scientific, biomedical and industrial applications with small companies and startups.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” TV series aired when I was in elementary school. My teacher told our class that any of us that watched it and wrote a report about an episode would receive extra credit. The first episode hooked me—I watched every one, and soon found myself looking for books and magazines on astronomy. Sagan’s introduction to the universe was my introduction to the world of science.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
Working on North American original equipment manufacturer (OEM) business development for TOPTICA brings together many threads that are appealing to me. I get to work with a broad laser-product portfolio, we address a wide array of applications, our products are used in environments including research labs all the way to factories and we have a great customer-centric spirit.
I love to make connections, and it is highly satisfying to spend my time seeking out and then connecting engineers and product developers with products that will enable their goals. Because of the wide variety of applications, I’m constantly learning new things and meeting new people. While I miss some of the earlier parts of my career doing hands-on work building lasers, after some time dealing with customer installations and interactions, I knew that I wanted to be on the marketing and sales side of commercial work.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Thinking back to early on in my career, what was successful for me was being unafraid to approach and introduce myself to others who were at different points in their careers. One such person made a huge impact on me by arranging for me to be invited to join the OSA Corporate Associates Committee (shout out to David Hardwick!). Having a voice on a professional society’s committee after only a few years in industry had been unthinkable to me, and it opened my mind to finding other volunteer opportunities, and even to creating my own gatherings of local-area photonics professionals that led indirectly to the formation of a regional photonics cluster.
My advice is: Seek out every type of networking that is available to you now. Volunteer for organizing or standing committees—it will enrich your network in many ways. Once you have started to make these professional network connections, do what you can to nurture them. Reach out and stay in contact.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
Professional conferences are absolutely critical to engagement. They provide so many types of resources: access to new information, new contacts, renewed connection with people you have worked with before and the chance to find out the state of the industry.
Another thing I’ve found to be important are the regional photonics industry groups—they are an excellent resource for local connections and they can provide the opportunity to help drive what is happening in terms of education and industry support.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
To work in marketing and sales in the photonics industry, the first thing you will need is a strong technical background based on your undergraduate and graduate studies. If you have the time and interest, a Master’s or Ph.D. will set you apart. Beyond that, if you are able to invest the time to obtain an MBA, that will help give you business tools that will ease your way to success. If you are unable to fit this in, search for programs to learn about the basic business functions. These are increasingly available online and through professional societies.
Of course, soft skills are also important, and to be effective in marketing and sales, you will need to have very effective communication skills (including listening), a fair amount of creativity and problem-solving ability and excellent organization skills to keep track of all the interactions you will have both outside and inside your company.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
I’d say there were at least two critical decisions that I made, equally good. The first one was to choose an extension of my graduate work over money. When I completed my Ph.D., I was invited by a local law firm to join them as a patent agent as a first step toward becoming a patent attorney. The pay was enticing, but it would have taken me away from working with lasers. Thankfully, I had another option, which was to join IMRA America and continue working on femtosecond fiber lasers—work that I am proud of and that I would have missed out on if higher pay was my first priority.
The second critical career decision was to leave the comfort of my work at IMRA to become an entrepreneur. I was in a position to be part of the founding team of a specialty optical fiber company, Arbor Photonics. The five years I spent working on various aspects of that start-up before we sold the technology to nLight were exciting, exhilarating and provided amazing growth opportunities for me.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Everyone experiences setbacks in their work-life that will make them question whether they are on a good path. This is normal and expected, and those setbacks provide a chance for reflection. When you hit a point when the situation seems too discouraging, make sure to reach out to people you trust for advice and as sounding boards.
I can remember several times during my career when I questioned whether I was on the right path, but the truth is, there is never just one right path. During one such period, I made sure to engage even more with my networks and that led to new opportunities—I ended up starting my own consulting practice when I couldn’t find one single job that met my needs.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Addressing undergraduate students: If you have access to undergrad research programs, sign up! I really wish I had done that, but I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with courses if I took on that extra opportunity, and it turns out that I missed the chance to work for Dr. Chuck Vest, who went on to became the President of MIT.
For graduate students: Try everything, and don’t shy away from any aspect of experimental (and theoretical) work. The more versed you can make yourself in the areas adjacent to your thesis work, the better you will be at solving problems over the lifetime of your career.