Kailyn has completed her co-ops so far at the Capasso Group, an optics research group at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Keep reading to learn more about how she landed the position in first year and what her job is like!
How did you get to where you are today?
Where I am today is by total chance. I applied for my first co-op position during Winter 2021 (we all can remember the state of the world at that time). Late into the winter semester, I received an email about a research position at Harvard University in the Capasso Group working with photonics. I was a 1B student at the time (meaning I was in my second term of first year), so I thought who would want to hire me? I applied anyway and was hired, starting my path into the optical engineering world. I have since worked as a research assistant in the Capasso group for all my co-ops thus far. While at the Capasso group, I have been with two different graduate students who have mentored me in my projects.
I was also able to join Dayan Ban’s lab in the ECE department as an undergraduate research assistant (URA) this past spring semester working with quantum-cascade lasers (QCLs).
What are the main responsibilities of your job? What project(s) have you taken on?
I have taken on building, controlling, and designing free space optical set-ups to characterize fabricated metasurfaces. Creating a working optical setup entails writing code to “talk” to various different types of instruments and aligning the setup. After characterizing the metasurfaces, I then process the collected data, usually in the form of images.
In recent months, I have fabricated my own metasurfaces from start to finish to learn the process. Now, I am creating a “recipe” or a step-by-step repeatable process that a future person (a future me) can go back and execute again. I am creating a recipe for one of my supervisors’ current projects, trying to find the optimum combination of factors.
What’s your favourite part about your job?
My favourite part about my job is problem solving: having a problem or an outline of a problem, and then figuring out what the solution or the output result is. As a mundane example, I recently needed to get an old desktop to work again. I started off not knowing the problem, but by the end, I figured out that I needed to replace the RAM.
Working in academia means that every day looks different. Projects are continually evolving and people are continually learning. I love the working environment because if I make a mistake, it’s okay–just learn from it. The pace changes day-to-day: it could be slow if I’m attending multiple talks or meetings, or quick if it is a heavy fabrication day.
My desk neighbours know that my least favourite part of my day is just sitting and doing computer work. I enjoy the hands-on work of either nanofabrication or free space optical setups. However, I do enjoy sipping my coffee while at my desk :)
What skills do you need for this job? What skills did you learn in your job?
I was hired as a 1B student, which meant that my skill set was limited to what I learned in my first year of university. The only really useful tool in my toolbox was knowing how to code in Python (NE 111) and MATLAB (NE 113). However, it was my “soft” skills that helped me get the job. One major soft skill that I think is important in academia is the ability to persevere and the willingness to learn. There is a lot of learning on the job, from listening to conversations at lunch to attending seminars. Most of the people I have encountered at work want to teach someone else the skill they have mastered. I have found that people like to pass off knowledge by answering questions or showing you something. I learned everything I needed to know from either asking questions about things I didn’t know, or by figuring out what I didn’t know but needed to know.
I could make a long list of everything I have learned from the Capasso group, but I’ll stick to very memorable things I have learned. For example, I needed to write code to control a camera. I quickly figured out the only way to “talk” with this camera was through serial commands. Serial commands are the level above binary where a line is written then read. My supervisor and I had no clue how to use serial commands. However, a week later, I was able to have the camera take a photo using commands I wrote.
I have also learned by my supervisor telling me, “Okay, I am going to leave now for you to finish.” This means I will be on my own and will need to figure out and remember what I am supposed to do. A good example was when I was left to spin coat by myself. I had done spin coating before, but never alone. It was a stressful situation, but it forced me not to rely on someone else to help and taught me to work through things on my own.
What are you planning on pursuing after graduation? Do you need a postgraduate degree for your job?
In the future, I see myself managing a lab in an industry setting or being a lead optical engineer for a company. I could change my mind and decide to stay in academia, but I would like to see research used in a product for the world (after all, I am an engineer). I would need a graduate degree in most of the cases where I envision myself in, but I like the idea of continuing on after undergrad to dive deeper into my chosen area of expertise.