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Biologist at a Physics Conference

My experience in IONS KOALA 2019

Do you think that the reduction in size of our human brain started 20,000 years ago is because we are getting dumb? Hey! I am serious, there is a theory stating that “As complex societies emerged, the brain became smaller because people did not have to be as smart to stay alive […] individuals who would not have been able to survive by their wits alone could scrape by with the help of others—supported, as it were, by the first social safety nets” (check here). As exciting as this debate seems to me, I am just not an expert in human evolution, and I have no idea if that is true. However, the idea that too much specialization leads to a reduction on certain other skills seems logical to me.

And this relates to one of the most popular myths of PhD life: “A PhD makes you know more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing”. Is this really true? I think if we consider a PhD only a piece of “publishable original knowledge” then yes, but a PhD is a lot more than that. You get input from every source, you meet people working in totally different areas of the knowledge, you get to develop new skills and hopefully you make new friends. And, I think a good way to fight this myth is getting involved in cross disciplinary work. Challenging ourselves to learn stuff in fields outside of our comfort zone. This is what KOALA was for me.

In summary, I work with beautiful shiny creatures called Christmas beetles. I am crazy as a niffler about them. And I want to know how they can produce these amazing colours and visual appearances. In fact, these beetles use nanostructures in their shells to manipulate light. In simpler words, it is like they had specific mirrors to filter, reflect and amplify specific wavelengths. Therefore, I study the interaction of light with these mirrors. Light is such an amazing phenomenon of the universe. It is everywhere, but normally we do not have a feeling of all that it does. KOALA is a student’s physics conference. Everyone working with something related to light can go. I won’t say I was not nervous about it. But I was happy to share with everyone how amazing beetles are.

And it seems to me that I accomplished my goal there! I do not know what parts of my talk people would remember… (Iridescent dinosaurs that used photonic crystals to communicate, structural colours everywhere in nature, why evolutionary questions can open our minds to new ideas of bio inspiration project?, how measuring colour is more complex than we used to think, or the classical: “beetles are pretty”) but I consider a personal victory that people approached to me just to say “beetles are so cool”. And that is what this is all about for me. Just how beautiful these creatures are and how much we can learn from them.

But apart from that I wanted to share some of the coolest highlights of the conference in the shape of fun facts, so you can understand why I was so excited about this experience.

My favourite posters:
1. Estimating the fat percentage in meat takes time and has a sample bias. An OCT scanner compares the phase images of the two polarizations of two lasers, and it allows to build an intensity image where fat is different intensity because it absorbs more light than the muscle. After identifying the intensity profile of fat, all pieces of meat can be compared to it in less than 80sec each. A more effective and accurate approach! (Abi Thampi, Uni of Aukland, NZ).

2. Quantifying bacteria in meat is also difficult. If you use flow cytometry, you need to shine a laser to a bunch of cells coupled with a fluorophore, but that is expensive, time consuming and the equipment is bulky. By using a technique called soft lithography you can create a microfluidic chip to align the bacteria properly and force them to pass in front of a laser one by one to identify them as bacteria with a faster, cheaper and more portable equipment (Ayomikun (Sam) – Esan Uni of Aukland, NZ).

3. A pulsar is the interaction between two units in space. It has a magnetic field and produces light. By characterising the patterns of this light signal, it is possible to identify anomalies that could be informative about the future of the pulsar. This info can be even used to make maps of the universe (Francis Dela Cruz – De La Salle University, Manila).

My favourite talk:
A very elegant explanation of chaos. Quantum systems take place at subatomic level, where the light can behave both as a wave and a particle. Quantum systems can be in multiple states at the same time, and that makes it difficult to understand chaos in this systems. However, there is one method: It would be impossible to measure the chaos in the wind by our naked eye, but we could blow sand in it, in order to see the patterns it forms, and measure chaos indirectly. In the same way, we can measure the chaos in a quantum system by the quantum mechanical sand that is lifted and blown in it (Magdalini Zonnios – Monash University, Aus).

Something that I learnt is that we can study a chaotic system and use maths to make an inference of the disturbance in the original state that generated its current state. As a fun exercise that blew my mind in a posterior conversation with this amazing woman, a couple of questions: is it possible to demonstrate that what we call chaos is actually the result of our lack of knowledge? Does randomness really exist? Also, if it doesn’t, how would that fit in our evolution and natural selection theories? Yeah maybe that is a big jump, but if the topic sounds interesting to you, check out this cool podcast episode called “harnessing Randomness” with Denis Noble. You won’t regret it.

I swear I wanted to write more details about more posters and talks, but then this comment would be extremely long, so I was forced to select just a couple. It is a shame, there were sooo many good things.

Outreach Evening:
1. A scale model with lasers to explain the effect of gravitational waves on earth: Basically, gravitational waves can somehow alter the shape of the earth squeezing it. By having finely tuned lasers aligned but separated by many kilometres in distance, it is possible to detect how the distance between them changes when a gravitational wave affects the earth shape.

2. A paper craft spec for your phone, super easy to make at home. Find some more cool physics experiments to do at home in the same website.

A bit of feminism and equality: Professor Arti Agrawal (University of Technology Sydney, Australia) told us how, by being an active member in the OSA community she is taking as many chances as possible to educate children and to try to fight the gaps of race, gender orientation and gender that we still have in our society. She told us she felt the need to do something because she experienced herself all the challenges of being a woman in Sciences, and encouraged us to examine our own lives and costumes and see what we can do to make the science environment better for everyone. I found it very inspiring.

How to be more employable in Industry. A workshop on what are the skills PhD students find difficult to develop and train. In the long term this becomes an obstacle for our personal and professional development. So many! Like getting things done in time, be more results driven, team work and so many other (for more information about this, see the Thesis Whisperer blog; she has some advice regarding these skills as well.). A cool activity proposed in the workshop was to examine ourselves to identify our toxic habits, and propose strategies to fight them.

Finally, the social day allowed us to make very dear new friends. I met so many powerful and smart people engaging in conversations of all sorts about sciences, politics (yes politics) and life in general. A day on a beautiful beach that was great to try the extremely cold waters of New Zealand, and see sea lions and penguins. A bit of Hiking in the afternoon to observe the incredible diversity of living dinosaurs in New Zealand: For some reason NZ does not have many mammals, so there the birds are the stars of the forest. Some birds with beautiful structural colours, some others making incredible sounds, some level of sadness because the kiwi is nocturnal, so we could not see it. Finally, we left with the promise that one of the biggest weirdest tree that we saw, was bitten by a Moa when it was just a small plant. To clarify, apparently the tree grew in a weird way because it was bitten in the tip. Also, a Moa was a super big wingless bird endemic from NZ which went extinct due to overhunting by the first human colonizers of the land. When I say super big, I mean 3.6m and 230kg. OMG! Imagine hunting that!

Of course I would never say that we get dumb by specializing in doing a PhD in a very specific topic! However, I do think the exciting opportunity to learn new stuff and tackling a problem from different angles comes from trying to engage in cross-disciplinary projects and activities. Nowadays, so many fields have been explored in depth but not so many have been actually integrated. I think this is the key to find new applications of our work and simply to have more new ideas.

Unfortunately (or maybe naturally?), even trying hard it is impossible to become an expert in two areas of the knowledge and develop a project in the intersection by yourself. Fortunately, that is not what this is all about. One of the messages of the conference in Dunedin that was not related to science, but that stills strikes me as one of the best piece of advice for real life was “Don’t always try to be the smartest person in the room, if you do not know something, go and find someone to team up with”. And in my experience, trying this is really powerful: They will teach you more things and ask questions that will make you see the world differently. But more importantly, the feeling of amazement about the wonders of the world will boost your energy every day. In conclusion, cross disciplinary experiences like this won’t make your Homo sapiens brain go bigger, but they will show you how to work in teams, they will give you more ideas, and they will certainly make your PhD happier. At least that is how it is for me.

Ps: Thank you so much for my friends in Nanophotonics group of Melb Uni for the everyday cross-disciplinary experience. And thanks to my supervisors for encouraging me to go to this conference and for training me with patience and dedication. And finally thanks to the most supportive lab: Stuart-Fox lab.

– Laura Ospina Rozo is possibly the most enthusiastic PhD student the world has ever known. She is investigating the interaction of light with structures in beetle cuticle to produce a range of optical effects.

IONS KOALA is a Conference on Optics, Atoms, and Laser Applications; an annual student conference held in Australia and New Zealand.

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