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The light fantastic: Senior Programme Manager for Photonics

At Technology Scotland, Alison uses her physics expertise to promote the Scottish photonics industry around the world, running networking events, building links and enabling collaboration across the laser science industry.

"You get the odd lightsaber joke, obviously, but actually it's everyday life: your mobile phone, your smart TV, a hospital scan."

First name: Alison | Job title: Senior Programme Manager for Photonics | Organisation: Technology Scotland | Qualifications: PhD, Continuous-Wave, Intracavity Singly-Resonant Optical Parametric Oscillators, University of St Andrews; MSc, Optoelectronics and Laser Devices, University of St Andrews and Heriot-Watt University; BSc, Physics, University of St Andrews

When did you first get excited about physics?
Physics was a subject that just made sense to me, and I loved the practical, experimental aspect of it. Having an inspirational physics teacher at school really helped, and she was also my careers guidance teacher. I'd originally thought I wanted to pursue a career in civil engineering, but she pointed out that there weren’t many engineering jobs at the time, so why didn’t I think about doing physics instead? Then, if I still wanted to do engineering, I could always do a conversion course. So I went to university and just fell in love with photonics.

What was it about photonics that was so interesting?
It was all the potential applications of that technology. It could be anything from defence, where they're trying to confuse heat-seeking missiles, to medical applications, where you're diagnosing early stage cancer. And everything in between! People think “oh, photonics, what are you going to do with that?”. You get the odd lightsaber joke, obviously, but actually it's everyday life: your mobile phone, your smart TV, a hospital scan. It's all connected to physics.

What is photonics?
Photonics is the technology of harnessing light. A photon is the element of light, the equivalent to an electron being the particle of electricity. It's almost like the invisible technology that surrounds us at all times. Whenever you use your phone to stream video, turn on a light, drive your car, go to hospital, you’re using products that are enabled by photonics.

As an industry it has a really good future because it's going to enable quite a few of the solutions to some of the major global challenges we’re facing: health, climate change, sustainability and energy production.

How would you describe your job?
The photonics sector in Scotland has a fantastic reputation worldwide, so my job is about maintaining that and making sure that it’s communicated well. It's explaining what we're doing in photonics in Scotland and communicating that to anybody who might have an interest in it, whether that be people developing it, end users, or the government minister who needs to know there’s a sector here that requires national support.

The role that I'm in now is focused on the industry, so it's about making sure that good collaboration happens, that people can network and form new working relationships. It’s about introducing people and showing them that they’re both doing interesting things, and that perhaps they could work together.

It’s also my job to make sure people are aware of potential funding opportunities and of events that are happening. I also help organise events. I produce reports, do surveys – it involves a lot of gathering information. And when I'm allowed back out on the road [after COVID] I'll be out visiting members and talking to them about what they need.

What skills do you need to do your job?
Having a technology background where I have some knowledge of what the organisations I work with are doing is invaluable. I don't need to know all the finer details, but having that knowledge of the basics means I can make connections like: “Oh, that funding that's coming out for remote sensing will be good for company X.” Good communication skills are essential, so that you can enable that knowledge exchange and collaboration.

Being able to talk to different levels of people is also important. Having my qualifications gives me the confidence to go and talk to the top people at these companies, who have probably come through a similar career path to get to where they are. And having been involved in physics and photonics at university means I have a fantastic network of contacts and ex-colleagues. If I don't know the right person to talk to, somebody I know probably will. The network you develop over your career is so important.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love seeing what's happening at the forefront of science - and having a little bit of input into it. But I also like just engaging with people, talking to people and having that real-life human connection. It’s great to know that you’re helping people to achieve their goals. That's probably the most satisfying thing of all.

What advice would you have for a young person considering studying physics?
I would encourage anybody who has an aptitude for physics and who enjoys it to absolutely go ahead and do a degree in physics. The career opportunities it brings are almost unending. As far as photonics goes, there's a massive range of careers, from working in a research and development lab at a company developing a new product, to doing medical physics and helping out in bio photonics. It's something that will open a lot of career doors for you. Perhaps just as importantly, it won’t shut any.

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