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Get to Know Your IEEE Photonics Society Leadership: Kithinji Muriungi

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Associate Vice President (AVP), Chapter Relations – IEEE Photonics Society

What is Your Current Career Track and/or Technical Areas of Interest within Photonics?

Kithinji Muriungi
Kithinji Muriungi

Professionally, I am more involved in emerging technologies, products & solutions development, and innovations but my photonics interests are in the photonics engineering and technology applications in design and development of suitable solutions for local challenges which can be scaled globally. The recent interesting personal work in photonics was the “Future Applications of Photonics and Emerging Technologies for Security and Defense Using Drones in Africa”- presented during RAPID2021 with a collaborative work between twelve individuals (#TeamTolv) and Kenya Defence Forces while looking to solve a security challenge especially in Africa using Photonics technologies and drones.

What is One Characteristic that You Believe Every Leader Should Possess?

Great leaders Listen! Ability to listen actively, with an open-mind, and with the objective to understand what’s being communicated makes your leadership become not only effective, influential, and charismatic but also transformational. When you listen, you learn; when you speak, you are only but just repeating what you already know.

How Would You Advise Members Who Want to Become More Involved in the Society?

Learn by doing (Mens et Manus). To become great at something, focus on doing it and grow it from a habit to a lifestyle. The more activities and events you participate in, the more you get involved in knowing more about the Society. Great involvement makes you feel ownership of the Society and also pride in yourself to be part of the bigger photonics family. Finally, what you put focus on, grows.

What Role Does Your Volunteer Leadership Position Play for IEEE Photonics Society? What Challenges Do You Face?

As an AVP of Chapter Relations, I simply act as the lead liaison between chapters and the IEEE Photonics Society. This means, I devise, identify, and assist chapter chairs and other volunteers with local activities, best practices, and resources that chapters need to enhance their reach and engagement with members. In terms of challenges, all chapters are unique hence there is no one fits solution due to differences in geographical locations, chapter members support, lead volunteer goals, administration support especially for student branch chapters, and university or section awareness towards photonics technologies. In regions like Africa and Latin America, the main challenges are language barriers especially in the Spanish speaking countries.

What Do You Want to Accomplish as an Associate Vice President This Year / Next Year?

My main goal is to support: more outcome and impact individual contributions of local members and the chapters they serve. People of different experiences and talents bring new ways of thinking that spark creativity and innovation. Also, atomic changes we can effectively make together can make a larger societal impact. I look to make this goal happen through value-based and goal-driven projects and activities, such as:

  • Better defining the role chapters play in our Society, i.e. retaining members, recruitment, fostering community, etc.
  • Identifying the challenges our chapters regionally and globally face, what needs do they share and differ on, then implement solutions.
  • Supporting Capacity-Building programs run by members in respective chapters to foster ownership, i.e. application based trainings, entrepreneurship sessions, career & professional development, etc.
  • Initiate member incentive/branding/recruitment models for chapter growth, i.e. competitions, academic exchanges, promotional materials/swag, regional awards/recognition, websites/community network sites, newsletter submissions, etc.
  • Facilitating the development of joint IEEE SIGHT Groups with Society Chapters to facilitate Humanitarian Activities at the local level, as well as promote photonics as a sustainable solution.
  • Adopting practices to help Chapters bridge partnerships with local photonics companies.
  • These kinds of activities will enable developed chapters to mentor developing chapters hence creating an interdependent photonics society.

Additionally, I would like to scale and create a framework for chapter collaboration and partnership with entities outside IEEE especially industries and for-profit organizations to create self-sustaining chapters. By doing this, I hope to revive the inactive chapters and also facilitate creation of new active ones with succession and transition strategic plans. Finally, I look to develop a culture of transformational leadership among volunteers in the Society.

Why Photonics? What was Your “Photonics Moment?” (More personal background story, etc.)

Whenever I think about photonics, the first thing that comes to mind is the 1 Tonne 5MB IBM Enterprise hard disk (IBM 305 RAMAC) in 1956 and the current 2 grams 1TB memory card. To me photonics means unlimited possibilities in the “electronics” arena. Photonics tells me with great certainty that one day I might be walking with a couple of full 42 rack servers in my pocket similar to what we are currently doing with smartphones. Sounds crazy right? Now that is Photonics to me.

What About Our Society’s Mission and Work Motivates You?

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) among the members, volunteers, and staff in IEEE Photonics Society really motivates and inspires me to remain part of the Society. IEEE Phonic Society is among the few societies who have a dedicated focus and effort in making every member of the Society feel valued and appreciated. This creates ownership and sense of belonging to members across the globe. Apart from DEI, IEEE Photonics Society is a mission and impact-driven organization. This makes it easier for the volunteers to be appreciated and make their results acknowledged. It feels great for volunteers to always know that they will earn their credits as a result of their volunteering and dedication to the organization.

Why Do You Think Chapters, Grassroots Outreach, and Community Engagement is Essential to the Success of Our Society?

The simplest way to explain its significance is through the “Bottom-Up Approach,” which facilitates and enables full individual Ownership leading to Sustainability which translates to “Build to Last.” To build a society that is meant to last and with sustainability in mind, making the community own their events and activities makes it easy for IEEE Photonics Society to support them and scale their engagement. When the ownership is transferred to the chapters, there is definitely a high impact since grassroot communities and chapters become the driving force behind the society’s success. This helps solve the challenges of “forcing” global strategies to chapters where their needs are unique and specific to their local communities and chapters.

How Can We Better Support Chapter Leaders and Better Align Our Strategic Goals Globally?

Listening and getting regular feedback through the right and appropriate communication channels is critical in understanding real-time status of chapters through their volunteer leaders and adopting to their needs accordingly. To have a sustainable chapter leadership, organic growth of leaders is critical in aligning strategic goals globally. Organically grown and developed leaders have a greater sense of responsibility and always maintains and steers the chapters towards the greater vision, guided by the overall mission, values, and goals of the organization.

Do You Have a Favorite IEEE Photonics Society Story?

Sometime back in 30th May 2018 (10:00 PM), Ezabo Baron reached out to me regarding a travel grant opportunity offered by IEEE Photonics Society. I applied for it to attend a Summer Topicals Meeting Series Conference in the USA but fortunately, I failed to secure the grants but I got an opportunity to meet Lauren (via email). Two months later, we organized a webinar that was supposed to be for IEEE Moi University Student Branch but ended up having a huge attendance from Middle East, Europe, Asia, and some from USA. The host was Yanne Chembo and the topic was: “Photonics Research and Career Development in Africa“. After this session, I realized how Photonics plays a major role in the 21st century. Being a LOVER of electronics, I decided to up my game and start exploring Photonics.

Three months later after the webinar, a lot happened and I got my first opportunity to attend the annual IEEE Photonics Society Conference – IPC2018 in Reston, Virginia USA. Things went on well during the conference and I later toured Washington DC but more importantly I was fortunate enough to join the Diversity & Inclusion Committee Meeting on Wednesday during the conference. This is where the role of being a Membership Development and Outreach Volunteer and the IEEE Photonics Society Coordinator in Kenya Section began. Did I mention that in a week’s time, I learned more than what I had learned in the last 4 years!

Coming back, I started championing for activities in Kenya and growing Photonics membership in the Section. In 2019 May, I was again selected to represent IEEE Photonics Society in Trieste, Italy during the International Day of Light. The event was a success and after coming back IEEE Kenyatta University (KU) Student Branch agreed to petition for an IEEE Photonics Society student branch chapter. Months later, I traveled back to San Antonio, Texas during the IPC2019 where I was given an opportunity to share my plan for Africa and specifically for Kenya where I was the Coordinator. During the presentation, I promised a lot up to a point I doubted if I had a team or the capacity that would make it possible.

Coming back home, in less than a month, KU successfully petitioned the first chapter in Kenya. This is where the magic began and everything impossible seemed possible and even more importantly do-able. A month later, I traveled back to Rhode Island, USA for the Black Physicist Conference as a sponsor on behalf of the Society. A lot happened there, and I even happened to visit MIT (my dream campus) and had an electronic lab session in the Electronics, Photonics and Nano material lab. Being an IBMer (as an Intern) by then, I visited THE HOME OF WATSON! (MIT | IBM Watson AI Lab) in Massachusetts, Boston. I then took a flash-look at Harvard and then went back to Providence, Rhodes Island where the conference was taking place.

From November 2019 and now to-date, lots have happened all because of Team, Sacrifice, Consistency & Persistence, Patience, Focus, Dedication, Powered With Passion & Community At Heart among other elements that volunteers in Africa have demonstrated. Later in 2020, IEEE KU SB Chapter won the Society’s Chapter of the Year Award, IEEE JKUAT, Kenya and Kyambogo University, Uganda were born which was followed by multiple successful and impactful projects happening in Africa.

This is my favorite Photonics story of how a Whatsapp text message from Uganda to Kenya on Wednesday, May 30th 2018 at around 10:00 PM, turned me to not only a member of the Society but also an active volunteer.

Can You Name a Person Who Has Had a Tremendous Impact on You as a Leader? Maybe Someone Who Has Been a Mentor to You? Why and How Did This Person Impact Your Life?

This will definitely be Mr. Mbaabu Muguna: My High School Principal at Ontulili Boys Secondary School. He was truly God’s sent! If it were not for him, I would have dropped the opportunity of being a dorm captain in high school and I would definitely not have taken any leadership positions later even in university. He literally forced me to transition from contributor to leader which finally killed the fear in me and also built resilience, GRIT, and internal toughness in handling difficult people and tough situations. A lot has happened throughout my life all because Mr. Mbaabu did not sympathize with me but instead empathized with me and nurtured the leadership seed which was in me but I was in denial due to low self-esteem, cowardice, fear of the unknown, and also a fear of losing friends. I can now connect the dots and become grateful for his deeds. Thank you Mr. Mbaabu for having the courage to nurture the leadership in me that others were afraid and never willing to nurture. The simple Stoic principles that I picked from this was “Amor Fati” – “Love of Fate” which emphasizes, “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy” – Epictetus.

What Advice Would You Give Someone Going into a Leadership Position for the First Time?

If you want to grow, grow others. Leadership is not about self but service and influence to others. In leadership, you grow and develop when you fully dedicate yourself into influencing, developing, and growing others positively. To make a great and brilliant leader, especially as a volunteer, consider that “Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” – Elizabeth Andrew.

Tell Us Something Fun About Yourself (i.e. Hobby, Favorite Thing to Do, Interesting Trait)

I love random and dynamic adventures and enjoy doing new things; I would rather choose to explore uncertain things just for the fun bit of it than just stick to the norm and status quo. This probably explains why I enjoy philosophical and psychological discussions outside of technology and engineering scopes. Probably the next time we meet, try to explain to me how possible it is for someone to be great analytically and brilliant intuitively at the same time.