Beginning in Photonics

I remember being beyond stressed about finding a summer internship. There were so many opportunities being presented by the advising department in different realms of physics, everything from biophysics to astrophysics and everything in between. It was overwhelming how many things there were to apply to, I didn’t know where to start. Everyone around me seemed so sure of what they were doing and what field they were interested in. It felt like they had their entire career figured out by day 2 of sophomore year, and I was falling behind.

Thankfully, I was accepted to the AIM Photonics Future Leaders Program, which is a program that acquaints undergraduates with the field of photonics. On the first day, I found out I was assigned to work on optimizing quantum dot lasers epitaxially grown on silicon substrate. The first time I read that project description I had a miniature heart attack: I knew what maybe two of those words meant (“dot” and “laser”). I was struck with how little I knew about what I was about to walk into and how entirely unqualified I was to be working here. I was terrified I was going to embarrass myself in front of graduate students and researchers, or even worse, ruin the experiments.

After three full weeks of running measurements, attending lab group meetings and seminars, and digesting a hefty chunk of a textbook about lasers, I can comfortably say I know what my work is about. I’ve only dropped the tiny little lasers I have to transfer from their case to the microscope stage twice, I have yet to break anything extremely expensive (knock on wood). And yet, I’m still far from comfortable in my setting. My severe case of impostor syndrome has quieted from a piercing scream to dull background noise, but I still feel my stomach tighten when my graduate mentor watches me take a measurement. People that I share lab space have seen me around enough to think I belong and will sometimes ask me questions, and I nine times out of 10 have zero clue how to answer them.

This feeling of discomfort is important to me, though. It’s how I know I’m growing as a student and a researcher. Research is what I want to do as a career, it’s what I hope to do indefinitely. If I didn’t still feel these growing pains it would mean I’m not pushing myself hard enough. Comfortable is boring, and that’s why I love physics and photonics: it’s not there to coddle you, it’s there to push you.