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Get to Know Your Leadership: Michelle Sander

Michelle Sander

Michelle Sander Ph.D
Associate Professor ECE, MSE at Boston University
Elected member of IEEE Photonic Society Board of Governors

What is Your Current Profession?

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University, an affiliated faculty with the Materials Science and Engineering Division and a faculty member of the BU Photonics Center. It has been an exciting journey to lead my own research group, the Ultrafast Optics group, to mentor, inspire,
and be inspired by undergraduate and graduate students and to teach various courses in electrical engineering. My lab’s research aims at transforming ultrafast optics by designing innovative femtosecond fiber laser sources and resolving the underlying dynamics that govern the pulse formation. By investigating photothermal light material interactions, we focus on label-free methods to externally modulate neuronal activity through infrared nerve stimulation and blocking. We further utilize a mid-infrared photothermal microscope to gain insights into the chemical composition and thermal properties of various materials like biomedical tissues in a novel, label-free, non-destructive, and contactless approach.

What Do You Want To Accomplish as a Board Member This Year / Next Year?

I am excited to be serving on the Board of Governors for the IEEE Photonics Society and aim to enhance the value, quality and impact of our professional society. I envision strengthening the role that the IEEE Photonics Society plays in the photonics community around the world by promoting excellent research through its publication channels, by offering interdisciplinary networking and research inspiration through conference programming and by bringing the most talented researchers together to grow our dynamic and diverse professional society. I aim to promote our rapid, high quality journal publications through coordinating multi-disciplinary special topics editions and enhance the visibility of authors that reflect diverse gender and geographic backgrounds. I would like to support initiatives to enhance diversity among conference attendees, with one focus particularly on under-represented groups and budding engineers and scientists. In addition, our local student and professional chapters provide a forum where students and early career researchers may find inspiration from outstanding research and interaction with mentors. Thus, another objective is to incentivize activities and virtual engagements among multiple student and local chapters and to strengthen local Women in Photonics networks to benefit our members and overall grow our community.

Michelle 1

Why Photonics? What Was Your “Photonics Moment?”

I have always been fascinated by how light interacts with various materials and how we can build novel optical devices. My decision to study electrical engineering was based on my interest in physics and math in high school combined with a desire to apply them and develop innovative and impactful technology. While my studies covered a broad range of topics, I realized that I enjoyed the electromagnetics and optics related courses the most. I also remember hearing about femtosecond pulses as the shortest timescales during my undergraduate studies and the new discoveries these have fueled, which I found extremely fascinating. I feel very fortunate that I could engage in various, very interesting optics-related research projects throughout my studies from organic pixels, to MEMS, to laser micromachining. By the time I started research in ultrafast optics, I was deeply hooked! Since then I have been excited to spend my PhD studies and now my career on femtosecond lasers and various laser applications.

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

The IEEE Photonics Society provides an amazing professional network with a diverse global connection that enables the exchange of stimulating scientific ideas via conferences and publications. Just as importantly, the Society offers professional development opportunities and local chapter communities for all career stages. I find the enthusiasm and dedication of society members who volunteer their time and knowledge to shape their optics and photonics engineering community extremely inspiring. Thus, I feel honoured to contribute alongside their efforts. I think the society’s efforts to creatively reshape existing programs to address current challenges while embracing diversity and inclusion captures the spirit and innovation shared by its members.

What Specific Assets Do You Bring to the Table as a Board Member?

My career trajectory combined with my various contributions to society engagements, have provided me with unique perspectives to offer valuable insights and input as a Board of Governors Elected Member. I have been dedicated to providing professional development opportunities for early career members, e.g. as OSA Ambassador 2017, and to help nourish a group of enthusiastic and diverse next generation researchers in photonics. Overall, I have been actively engaged in various committees within the IEEE Photonics Society and the larger photonics community. I have served on several conference committees (e.g. as CLEO subcommittee chair), am a member of the IEEE Photonics Publication Council and have been a member of the Technical Planning Committee of the IEEE Boston Photonics Society Chapter. As part of those activities, we launched the Boston Women in Photonics Networking Series in 2015, which contributed to the IEEE Photonics Society Boston chapter winning the “Society Most Innovative Chapter Award” in 2016.

Mention One Thing That You Have Changed and One Thing That You Want to Switch to Improve The IEEE Photonics Society?

In the local section of the IEEE Boston Photonics Society chapter, together with another member of the Technical Planning Committee, Dr. Jade Wang, we started a Women in Photonics Networking Series for the larger Boston area in 2015. This new initiative fosters networking connections to empower women in the field of optics and photonics in the Boston area across all ranks and career stages from academia and industry. It has been exciting to plan events that provide professional development opportunities while showcasing successful female role models and their inspiring career trajectories. We are currently considering how to grow and strengthen the impact of these Women in Photonics events even further.

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?

I feel very grateful towards several inspiring mentors that supported me throughout all stages of my studies and professorship and provided me with strong role models. Growing up in Germany and belonging to a handful of female students interested in physics and electrical engineering, reading biographies about pioneering women scientists bolstered my decision to pursue an electrical engineering career path. When I came to the US for graduate studies, I got to interact personally with women professors in engineering for the first time, which I found very inspiring
and empowering.

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

There are numerous avenues to become involved in the Society, which can all be rewarding in several ways. It is important to think about how much time one can dedicate to volunteering and to identify committees or activities that
match well with one’s personality and interests. Overall, everyone, regardless of background, ethnicity or gender, can
make significant contributions and any volunteering will be welcomed by the Society. Thus, I would recommend that
members (or non-members) start by talking to the amazing IEEE Photonics Staff at conferences, reach out to editors to volunteer as reviewer, or to chairs of committees within the Society outreach or conferences. The local student or regional chapters provide another great resource with several opportunities to participate in seminars, help organize professional events or get engaged in outreach efforts.

Why Do You Think Members Should Be Involved as Society Volunteers? What are the Benefits?

Volunteering time to work with other members towards a common goal provides a natural way to connect with professionals in the optics community. At the same time, it can be personally very rewarding to have been instrumental in organizing an event as part of a team and to witness its success knowing that one has made a tangible contribution. Further, volunteering can help to build stronger interpersonal skills by working in international teams, to improve time management and to engage in fruitful discussion on research and other topics. Personally, I find it empowering to be able to contribute to the overall mission and success of the Society and to give back to my community, especially through outreach and mentoring.

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

I think it is important to become familiar with the environment and committee one wants to lead. This could entail having several conversations with team members or others in similar or previous leadership positions to identify core missions and successful practices so far and to understand better the history of the particular committee. There is usually a wealth of expertise available and drawing on those resources and knowledge can make it much easier to get started. At the same time, I would advise that one shares their vision clearly and thinks creatively how this can be accomplished.

When You Faced with Two Equally Qualified Candidates, How Do You Determine Whom to Choose?

When there are two candidates with similar academic background, I think it is important to consider their socioeconomic, geographical and cultural circumstances, gender as well as their dedication for the position. Taking diversity criteria into consideration, I aim to find out what challenges they might have faced to reach their current career stage. If someone was very successful while being a minority in their chosen field, they probably could have developed stronger determination, grit and passion, and thus could be more successful in the future. Overall, I believe that innovation is fueled by bringing together diverse researchers, so it is important to build up diverse teams on a local scale.

Michelle 2

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

While vision, expertise, good interpersonal management and communication skills should form a foundation for every leader, I think a great leader will stand out by being able to motivate and inspire others. While this can be challenging to rise up to, I believe being personally invested in the various causes or projects, making time for team members, addressing challenges in a timely manner and with empathy and behaving with honesty and integrity can be essential to infuse others with motivation.

What is the Biggest Challenge Facing Leaders Today?
I think that the COVID-19 pandemic and all the associated uncertainty will provide a challenge to rethink how conferences, academic learning and other events that have traditionally brought members together face-to-face will shape our future interactions within the professional network.

What is One Mistake You Witness Leaders Making More Frequently Than Others?

I think sometimes accomplishments are not properly acknowledged or enough credit is not always assigned to team members or collaborators. From my point of view, science and innovation can benefit greatly from open discussions, listening to all kinds of different opinions in an inclusive atmosphere and sharing resources and information.

Tell Us Something Fun About Yourself!

I enjoy playing the piano, engaging in chamber music and going to concerts. In addition, I’m a big fan of outdoor activities in general and love down-hill skiing.