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15 May 2020

Photonics – the science of generating, controlling and detecting light – is the future

This weekend we celebrate the International Day of Light. We asked Maria Yzuel, a leading researcher in the field of photonics - the science of generating, controlling and detecting light - about developments in this fascinating discipline and also about her own exceptional career path.

Why did you decide to dedicate your career to optics and photonics?

By the time I started my PhD, in the sixties, there were not many possibilities to do research in any field of physics in Spain, my home country. I was nevertheless given the opportunity to start a PhD either in theoretical physics or in optics at the University of Zaragoza. I was particularly attracted by the idea of working in a laboratory, so I chose optics. From this moment, and for more than 50 years, I have been devoted to this discipline.




Maria Yzuel

After my PhD, which was about the quality of images in photographic systems, I was awarded a grant from the British Council to work at the University of Reading under Prof. Harold Hopkins.This was a turning point in my career. Not only did I learn about the international dimension of research, but the experience also convinced me of the importance of optics. Most importantly, it opened the door to other opportunities for me to continue my research in optics. In particular, when I came back from the UK, I was appointed as Associate Professor in physics by the Universidad de Zaragoza. A few years later, I became a Full Professor of Optics at the Universidad de Granada and in 1983 I joined the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, where since 2011, I am an Emeritus Professor. As you can see, it all started with a PhD and it has not finished yet!

Why is Photonics important?

It is definitely an essential tool for the development of cutting-edge technology in this century. The European Technology Platform for Optics, called Photonics21, describes several domains where photonics will definitely play an important role.

It is definitely an essential tool for the development of cutting-edge technology in this century.

I would like to mention, for instance, information and communication. We keep asking for higher speed in our communications, and larger storage possibilities for all the information we are generating. Photonics can help provide a solution.

Also in healthcare. With an increasingly old society, we need better solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. We have advanced in ophthalmology and endoscopy, for instance, fields that keep developing and providing new and more reliable solutions. Also microscopy, that allows us to see things that a few years ago were far beyond the limits of the standard optical microscope. But we still need more solutions for healthcare: more powerful and less expensive, less invasive, more sustainable and easy-to-access tools are desirable in our old society.

I would also mention energy. Energy, what an issue! It is not only about obtaining more efficient photovoltaic panels for buildings, but also improving lighting. In other fields, for example the broad and systematic use of lasers in industry, could lead not only to a more efficient manufacturing but also to a substantial decrease in energy consumption. The so-called and long desired “green manufacturing”…

Recently, I also learnt about the importance and possibilities of photonics in food and agricultural security. It is important for health authorities to be sure that food is arriving to the consumers in good condition. Currently, there are countries where this is consistently ensured, while other countries are still far from performing systematic controls, with all the problems this may cause. Photonics could provide us with images of plants that are useful not only for the selection of the good quality products, but also during the first steps of cultivation, to be sure plants are growing properly and to diagnose, from the very early stages, potential plagues.

Want to know more? The ERC funds more than 500 projects in the multifaceted field of photonics. You can find 10 examples - plus their unique research results - in the CORDIS photonics pack.

What are the main challenges faced?

I would say photonics and photonics technology in particular are not always properly identified. Many times photonics is confounded with electronics, or computer science, or even other disciplines. This is challenging since it leads to a misunderstanding by the authorities of the importance of the field, and therefore a lack of funding for optics and photonics. Many times photonics is confounded with electronics, or computer science, or even other disciplines. This is challenging since it leads to a misunderstanding by the authorities of the importance of the field, and therefore a lack of funding for optics and photonics. This can mean that researchers in the field have to compete against other researchers working in fields as different as materials science, for instance. Sometimes these disciplines are quickly evolving and the implications for society are easily identified, which means that there is the possibility that photonics stay a bit in the shade, which should not be the case. Definitely, there is room to improve this situation.

How do you see the discipline evolving?

The discipline is evolving in many directions and extremely fast, I would say. For example, we are still searching for shorter and more powerful laser pulses. This would give a boost to disciplines like chemistry or biology since we could explore the dynamics of ultra-short reactions, the evolution of molecules and cells, etc. This would most probably imply a revolution in nanochemistry, nanotechnology and nanoscience in general.

I am in the field of optical image processing so I can also think about the development of tools that can provide improved resolution, being able to look at individual cells and even inside them with superresolution methods (as recognised in the 2014 Nobel Award). These methods allow to obtain the images of viruses, proteines and nonostructures in general. Also the application of other techniques like polarization, to imaging. In this sense, we can think about photonics as an enabling technology for fundamental science in many other disciplines.

We can think about photonics as an enabling technology for fundamental science in many other disciplines.Of course, we cannot forget about the applications of photonics. As already mentioned, we need urgent solutions for healthcare, communications, energy, etc. I can also think about 3-D printing and its importance in manufacturing: lighter pieces, smaller margin for human error, easier prototyping, less expensive and time-consuming manufacturing, and so on. There are many optical components in 3D-printers and in order to enable the development of these machines, optics and photonics will have to provide solutions.

It is important to mention quantum technologies, which are mainly based on photonics. Quantum technologies are central to quantum information science and quantum computing, but also to quantum metrology, quantum lithography or integrated quantum optical circuits, for instance.

Photonics has a central role in such technologies due to the quantum states of light. Working with quantum states of light is incredibly challenging, but we know it is possible and photonics will gives us the technology we need to advance in these emerging and fast changing fields.

What do you think will be its biggest contribution or development in the future?

If only I could know this! It is very difficult for me to predict which will be the strongest contribution of photonics in the future. I see several fields where photonics has great opportunity to develop and contribute. I have already mentioned several of them. I can also think about the LIGO and VIRGO programs, in the United States and Europe respectively. These programs, based on laser interferometry, try to detect the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein. The possibility to witness such phenomena was unthinkable some years ago. This is a field that still has many unexplored aspects and some of its discoveries may have huge implications for our current textbook wisdom.

Nevertheless, during my life I have seen the resurgence of fields that seemed completely mature. For instance, photography. During the 90’s, photography was considered to be optimised: the objective was good, the receptor was good, nice images were produced. Then the CCD arrived, revolutionizing the world of photography and leading to digital cameras. Who today does not have a camera - a relatively good one! - in their smart phone? This was hardly imaginable 30 years ago. So coming back to your question, I would love to know how the discipline is going to evolve in the next 20 years, but unfortunately, I do not have an answer yet!

During your career, you have always been very close to students, not only as a professor but as a true mentor to some. Why are students so important to you?

I have always been professor at university, which gave me the opportunity to combine research and teaching. I personally enjoyed very much the teaching activities, specially working with undergraduate and graduate students in the laboratory, and I am convinced that this helped me a lot with my research. Students often make you question core beliefs and sometimes take you out of your comfort zone, meaning you need to take a step back and look at the same problem from a different perspective. You need to explain in words what you are thinking, meaning you need to give an order to your thoughts. Teaching, it has been so inspiring for me…

You need to explain in words what you are thinking, meaning you need to give an order to your thoughts. Teaching, it has been so inspiring for me…

On the other hand, it is not only that I enjoy teaching. I believe university professors should conduct research. I am fully convinced students benefit very much from having a professor who is also a researcher. Researchers know the state-of-the-art of the field and can provide students with examples of real research, they can promote a taste for science and can identify students who have a potential for research. We are talking here about the future of the field, but I myself am not going to achieve the future of photonics, students will. We therefore need to make sure they have the critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I would like to quote Ronald Shack - the inventor of the Shack-Hartmann wavefront sensor - with whom I strongly identify. He said he loved teaching because it allowed him “to encourage students to be curious, to understand what was happening before the eyes and not to take anything for granted”. A great phrase, isn’t it?

No doubt, teaching activities are time-consuming, but for me, personally, a good balance between research and teaching is definitely the winning combination.

What are the main challenges faced by students and young researchers?

I would say this depends very much on the country. For example, in Spain, I am sorry to see that many early stage researchers still don’t have the possibility to develop their career in the country. They need to leave, which is not necessarily negative, but most of them cannot come back - even if they would like to. This is the main problem.

The other challenge is job transience. When I participate in job selection committees, I see many very brilliant researchers applying for permanent positions. When I look at their CV’s, I am surprised to see they have held one temporary position after the other, and sometimes these jobs are far from ideal in terms of durability and salary. While mobility is an essential dimension of science, I really think the new generations of researchers are suffering from job uncertainty and instability.

While mobility is an essential dimension of science, I really think the new generations of researchers are suffering from job uncertainty and instability.

Another challenge is fierce competition. When I started in research, it was very difficult for me to find research groups in Spain that were working on high-level science. Publishing in high impact journals took more time than today, but one could secure a position after publishing fewer papers. Today, one needs to publish a lot and in very high impact journals, establish collaborations, travel to conferences and seminars; be in the right place at the right time, which is not so easy. While this means research is in constant evolution and researchers are very active - which is indeed very good - the reality is that at the individual level, it is quite difficult to be a researcher nowadays!

You were the first women to become a professor of Physics in Spain in 1971, the first woman to serve as President to the Spanish Optical society and the second female SPIE President. You were also involved in the SPIE Women in Optics programme. Why do you think it is important to support initiatives dealing with Women in Science?

In 1971, when I became professor I was not aware of the singularity of what I had done.

In 1971, when I became professor I was not aware of the singularity of what I had done. It was afterwards, during my career, that I observed that women in research tend to encounter more difficulties than men. In particular, I think there is a period in life when women need a bit more help, and this is often right after their PhD or during their post-doc, coinciding with the arrival of children. There is evidence showing that the percentage of women reaching professor positions does not coincide with the percentage of women doing PhDs. Therefore the numbers speak for themselves: we lose women at some point.

I can also mention the lower rate of women devoted to physics and engineering-related fields compared to men. I would say there is a lack of female role models. Such careers have long been considered as more appropriate for men than for women, so we need to be sure that girls in schools and high schools break with this trend and choose science at university. Science cannot lose half of its potential talent just because women do not enter research.

If you had to do it all again, would you devote yourself to science and optics?

Definitely! No doubt, I would do it again. Recent advances in the field make us to think this is only the beginning of a cascade of interesting discoveries and achievements. The future of optics and photonics is bright!