Am I an Imposter?

Imposter syndrome is the fear of being exposed as a fraud that overshadows your actual accomplishments.

Around March, I heard that I got accepted to the AIM Photonics program at UCSB. I was so happy since UCSB is on the top of my list for Ph.D. programs. As the semester came to an end, I had a realization that I didn’t know anything about photonics. I read up on the material that my mentor sent me, but I didn’t understand most of it. I didn’t know what I would need for my research. Would I just need to understand concepts in electromagnetism? Are the materials that I learned at Cal State Long Beach enough? About a week before the program started, I started to get nervous and doubtful about my success. What if I don’t leave a good impression and have a negative impact on my chance of getting into the Ph.D. program at UCSB? What happens if I embarrass myself?

Soon, the first day of the program came and I came to realize that I was the only person that was from a Cal State, driving me to question myself even more. Was I smart enough? Could I really do this? The first day of starting my project was even worse. I couldn’t answer most of the questions that my mentor asked me– even the ones that I knew– because I kept doubting myself. I had imposter syndrome. Even though my mentor, who is extremely kind and patient, told me it takes time to understand everything, I was so mad and frustrated at myself. I pushed myself to review and learn concepts by myself, but I felt like that wasn’t enough. After I asked a question, I felt like I should have come to the solution by myself. I felt bad for asking for so much help and bothering my mentor that I always had to take a moment to consider whether to ask him or not. This was how my first two weeks were like. I continued to stay in the lab for long hours not because I had a lot of work, but because I spent so much time second guessing myself.

On the Tuesday of the third week, we had an event where we had dinner with faculty, and Dr. Luke Theogarajan attended. He is the professor that I initially wanted to work with, so I was very excited to meet him. During the event, he said something that blew my mind. At the beginning of his job at Intel and his Ph.D. program he told us he had no idea or knowledge on the projects that he was working on. Someone asked him how he was able to become so successful in a field when he didn’t know anything. His answer was mind-blowing. He said that there is one advantage to having no knowledge in the field—you don’t know what is impossible. It was the first positive perspective that I had of myself.  I realized I have experiences that others might not have that could possibly bring new ideas to the table.

Research isn’t always analyzing data and collecting samples. It also includes bringing ideas outside of the box and applying it to the research project and making a difference. To do so, not only do you need to have the knowledge but also an open mindset. I may not be the most knowledgeable, but I am openminded to any concepts that they throw at me because I am a blank sheet. The learning curve may be steeper and harder to get over, but that just means that I learned more.  As long as you have the desire and the motivation, one day that mountain you have to climb may not seem so steep.

Guiding Waves

Photonic devices are the future of data transfer. Compared to conventional electronics, photonics offer the advantages of being lower power, and having a longer range and larger bandwidth. Fiber optics transmit data over vast distances with minimal loss. However, when it’s time to connect the cable to a waveguide, there are significant losses. As much as 90% of the energy put into the cable is lost at the connection point. I’m working on simulating this coupling loss at the fiber-waveguide interface.  Using specialized software, I’m designing a tapered waveguide which will focus more of the energy to and from the optical fiber. It requires a huge amount of energy to process all the data being generated by the internet. We can therefore cut down on the internet electricity usage by designing more efficient waveguides.

Waveguides are used to guide an electromagnetic wave over short distances where it will be modulated and converted from a light signal to a purely electrical one. My task is to use a CAD software called RSoft BeamPROP to design a waveguide structure that would minimize losses. Photonic design is basically applied physics; in order to efficiently construct and test the design, knowledge of classical electromagnetic theory is essential. To understand how the allowed energy states of the structure form, Maxwell’s equations must be matched along the boundary of the material. The solutions to Maxwell’s equations in waveguides are analogous to the quantum mechanical solutions to the finite-square-well.

Many undergraduate researchers that I know work on simulations. Simulations are very important because they allow scientists to better visualize the structure they are looking at and work out any design flaws before the device is fabricated. Manufacturing devices can be very expensive; a single wafer of certain semiconductors materials can cost up to $10000. BeamPROP uses solutions to Maxwell’s equations to model an electromagnetic wave propagating through different materials. By simply defining the structure geometry and specifying its index of refraction, the software can predict which solutions are permitted.

If anyone is interested in doing simulation work related to waveguides, I have a few suggestions. If you have time to read and comprehend how the physics simulation is programmed, you will vastly increase your efficiency. The greatest difficulty I faced was trying to understand where the software went wrong when it gave me a solution that didn’t make sense. By understanding the machinery behind the program, you can much better tailor your simulation to work with the software rather than against it. It will also give you a greater appreciation of how the physical principles of electromagnetism are coded into the program. Simulation software isn’t perfect. My PI has noticed that many people will place overconfidence in the software. This is why one must never turn off their intuition when performing simulations. Just because the software outputs a certain value, it doesn’t mean it is physical. A good way to reason out which solutions are legitimate is to run the same simulation using two different pieces of software. Until both are in agreement, it’s safe to assume that one or both programs aren’t giving you physical solutions.


The Tenure Wave: Your interactions with your professors explained in terms of Quantum Mechanics

Credit to Jorge Cham for this comic, which inspired me to write this.

Some say that professors aren’t human, that they’re secret reptilian overlords sent among us for enigmatic purposes. Some say they’re incomprehensible eldritch beings, and trying to understand them will only lead us mere mortals to insanity.

I, however, posit that professors are just strangely big manifestations of quantum phenomena.

The Location/Meeting Time Uncertainty Principle

Where is my PI? When are we going to meet next? These are questions that seem like they would have related answers: My PI is going to be with me at the time we’re next scheduled to meet. However, I’ve found that these two observable properties of a professor are not compatible. Similar to the location and momentum of a particle (described by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle), knowing the location of a professor more precisely reduces the precision with which you know your meeting time, so that the product of the uncertainties of both is at a minimum the reduced Plank constant:

$\Delta x \Delta t_m \geq \hbar$

If you know exactly where to find your PI, for instance at a group meeting, everyone else in your lab who needs to ask him something probably also does, so you’d best get in line to get your question in. And maybe it’s a fluke, but whenever I have a set meeting time with a professor, the universe seems to conspire against making that time.

This may not be the only uncertainty relation that professors obey, but it’s the only one I’ve been able to observe so far. As a goal for Further Research, I intend to investigate the possibility of a Generalized Professor Uncertainty Relation.

Tenure-dependent Location Wave Function

So what if we discard any attempt to know meeting times and just work with location? Can we then predict the location of a professor far into the future? Far enough that I’ll be able to find him whenever I have a question?

Unfortunately, no.

Professors only exist in a specific location when being explicitly interacted with. At other times, they are only a probability distribution. There’s a 40% chance of finding your PI in his office having a coffee at 2 in the afternoon, maybe. And this probability distribution changes somewhat predictably in time. As an associate professor works towards tenure, the large number of side projects taken on causes the probability distribution of his location to become more spread out. Weekly group meetings create a periodic clustering of high probability locations.

At any given time, the professor doesn’t actually OCCUPY any single one of those locations. However, the effects of his presence are still measurable. Similar to single-particle interference, the probability of a professor’s presence can be observed in phenomena such as when summer interns spontaneously stop slacking off. But it is only when measured explicitly that a professor collapses from a probability distribution to a specific location.

Surprise lab visits: proof of spontaneous collapse?

Physicists have long speculated about the specific nature of collapse, when observation causes a quantum system to stop acting like a distribution and start acting like a discrete particle. One somewhat popular interpretation is that collapse is a spontaneous process, that it happens on its own, very rarely, but for large enough things tightly tied together, one collapse pulls every other part along with it. So, you and I, made of trillions of quantum parts that might collapse at any moment, see each other as real objects, with specific locations, because we are continuously collapsing. However, there has been no conclusive proof of spontaneous collapse. Until now.

Last Friday, my PI came to visit me in the lab, completely unannounced.

Suddenly, I had precise knowledge of his location, without trying to observe it. A professor, on his own, collapsed the tenure function and became an object with specific location.

Optics: from Rochester to Santa Barbara

After 15 hours and over 2500 miles, I finally landed in Santa Barbara, CA. The first thing I noticed about Santa Barbara was the perfect temperature, the smell of the ocean, and the dark cloudy sky. Later, I learned it was a weather pattern known as June Gloom. Once I arrived at my house, I told my new housemates that I am from Rochester, NY; they looked at me with awe. Transplanting myself from one corner of the country to another corner was not as scary as I thought. Aside from the lack of sidewalks and seasons, I found similarity through the research and the people I work with. Walking through the labs, I noticed the familiar floating optical tables, overhanging microscopes, and a jungle of fiber optics cables. In the student office, I discovered that they also have a joint Optical Society of America (OSA) and SPIE (The International Society for Optics and Photonics) club. This became the place I would call home for the following 2 months.

Once I had settled down, I spent the first week learning more about my research and filling out some very (not) exciting paper work. I ran around the campus trying to get my student ID. Then I began doing more reading on my research and… I got confused. Like all research, confusion is the first sign of learning. I remembered to ask questions, routinely speak with my graduate mentors and continue to ask more questions. However, you should always attempt to seek the answer out first, so the knowledge will stay with you longer. Next, I begin learning how to design a simple PCB board and test the photonic switches that were fabricated in New York State! The wonderful thing about AIM Photonics is that it exists on both coast and there will soon be a facility in downtown Rochester. After spending the second week training on various measurement techniques, I thought I was ready to do the experiments.

I remember standing in front of the optical spectrum analyzer, also called an OSA (not to be confused with the society), wondering why I couldn’t get any signal. After checking every single connect and alignment, I found my answer. I forgot to turn on the laser. Trivial things like that can trip you up, and even the pros are prone to it. On one weekend, I came to lab to do more measurements with one of my graduate mentors. After an hour of alignment, we measured less than 0.1 milliwatt of power at the end of our fiber. We continued to spend more hours debugging the mistakes here and there and finally fixed it. The takeaway of that weekend was to be very mindful when doing measurements. If there is something wrong, check every step/connection on the way. It could be one or multiple things; don’t just assume but hypothesize and test.

Nearing the end of my internship, I feel a bit nostalgic. I didn’t get to go to the beach as often or as I imagined: sipping a margarita under the beautiful California sun. But, I did meet a lot of wonderful people from the AIM Future Leader program and received some great advice from my graduate student mentors. My housemates are also awesome people and overall, I enjoyed the company of the people more than the beach and the weather. However, Rochester could use some more sun.

Photonics and the Future Ahead of Me

This summer, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work under Justin Norman and Dr. John Bowers in the ECE department here at UCSB. My project was analyzing and characterizing quantum dot lasers epitaxially grown on silicon. These lasers are a high-performance, more economic-friendly alternative to lasers grown on a III-V substrate. This hands-on research experience has been so much more than I could have dreamed of. It developed my ability to quickly absorb information and figure out what’s important for me to know. It also taught me how easy it is to get overwhelmed with the amount of information you bite off about a subject. At the beginning, I tried to consume everything that was thrown my way and very quickly got bogged down in specifics that I didn’t necessarily need to know to understand what I was doing nor function in the lab. Photonics has the capability of being an endless source of questions, which is a double edged sword: it’s the reason I’m so fascinated by the field, but also why the field seems so daunting.

My plans for this upcoming year are ambitious, to say the least, but I’m the type of person that prefers being overwhelmed and running around to being underwhelmed and bored. I plan to run for a second term as Executive Vice President of my sorority, I will be beginning my upper-division coursework for my physics major and wrapping up my Mathematical Sciences major, and I hope to continue working on my research under Dr. Bowers and learn even more than I already have this summer. I’ve started to fall in love with the field of photonics, so I want to get as involved in the field as I can, whether that be in the lab setting, attending research talks, or reading journal articles.