Ask me anything: Cather Simpson

Source: Physics World

Cather Simpson is professor of physics and chemical sciences at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and chief science officer of Engender Technologies. Simpson is one of 10 physicists profiled in the March issue of Physics World to launch our new Ask Me Anything careers advice column

What skills do you use every day in your job?
At Engender Technologies, our technology is physics-based, so that’s our most critical expertise. Microfluidics and light–matter interactions are key, but we have to pick up essentials across other areas of physics, engineering, micromanufacturing, programming, biology, subsystem integration – the list is crazy long. Certain aspects of our project are seriously blue-skies, which is exciting because they’re ground-breaking, but also risky because we know even less about how (or if) they will help us achieve commercial goals.

There’s also a lot I do beyond the science – for example, I’m continuously co-ordinating R&D threads, managing progress against deadlines, and making sure everything is in place to achieve our complex, multifaceted technology on tight deadlines. One key skill is knowing when to tie off part of the research. When do we stop optimizing? When is performance “good enough”? I constantly analyse and manage risk by evaluating and balancing timeline, technical, IP and commercial risks. Communication skills are important, but rarely taught. Effective project management requires everyone’s input, from the head engineer to the part-time student – it’s truly a team effort.

What do you like best and least about your job?
I operate outside my comfort zone all the time. Virtually every day, I do something I’ve never done before. Luckily, I like this aspect of the work – it’s stressful, and my anxiety about failing is high because of the consequences, but it’s never boring. You have to just go, do your best to avoid obstacles and make adjustments to avoid running into disaster. We have to be resilient, as not every idea works and we encounter difficult patches – poorly performing lasers, misbehaving cells, manufacturing challenges limiting our innovation.

What’s the downside? As a start-up, lurching from funding to funding was miserable. Also, I can’t honestly say I’m good at stress management, and I struggle to prioritize leave. Last year, I travelled the equivalent of 10 around-the-world trips, and I’m a single mother of two teenage boys. At one point, I was ordered to take medical leave, which was a wake-up call. Fortunately, I’m comfortable with change, and the potential for Engender to make a real difference makes up for the downside.

What do you know today that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?
Careers are messy. When someone’s introduced at a conference, their career path looks logical and very step-by-step. But when you’re making your way down the path, it’s much more tangled and squirrely. When I moved to New Zealand, I had just been tenured in the US and I thought I was moving laterally, with minimal change in research ambitions. In reality, New Zealand’s research environment was challenging for my ultrafast spectroscopy programme and at first, I thought I’d made a huge mistake. The solution was to exploit our fundamental science and expand our impact through entrepreneurial photonics. Now our research shows up in real products, and we spin out companies left and right.

Another thing I wish I’d figured out sooner is that it’s all about the people. Too often we focus on the grants, publications, citations, medals and awards. But that’s not where the real value lies. A Māori proverb answers the question “What is the most important thing in the world?” with “He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata” – it’s the people, it’s the people, it’s the people. Science is ultimately a human activity. Prioritizing this philosophy, with all of its reflected individual and community layers, has made me a better mentor and better scientist.

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