Ever wondered what kind of chat up lines artificial intelligence (AI) might try? How about what kind of Love Heart candies it might write on Valentine’s? Thanks to machine learning blogger and author of You Look Like A Thing And I Love You, Janelle Shane, you don’t have to.
When she's not challenging neural nets, Shane is busy wielding lasers in her role as a senior research scientist. We caught up with Shane to find out more about her background, the little-known science of optics, and the enduring versatility of business cards.
What do you do?
I am a Senior Research Scientist in optics.
What did it take to get here?
The field I’m in is optics, but there aren’t many universities that have a specific program in optics. I majored in electrical engineering, did research in a physical chemistry lab, and then went on to get a master's degree in physics and a PhD in electrical engineering. In each place I was working with lasers and shaping light, so it was all optics, even if my degree didn’t say optics.
I should note that you don’t need a PhD or even a college degree to work in optics. There are lots of optics companies that hire and train technicians and don’t expect you to have had a chance to do optics-related work previously. You might be polishing lenses and other kinds of glass, assembling parts, or testing optics.
(At other times, Shane can be found turning her curiosity to holographic chocolate)
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I design equipment that shapes light. If you bounce light off one of the devices, or pass light through this seemingly clear window, it can change direction, refocus, or even shape itself into a fast-moving picture. People use them for studying the brain, directing laser beams to activate individual neurons to see how they process stuff like vision and sound. People also use them to steer the laser radar systems in cars, scanning quickly across a scene to build up an accurate depth map.
What I do is partly on the computer, planning and organizing my team, researching what to work on next, or writing reports or proposals. It’s also partly in the lab, and my favorite part is aligning the laser beam, where I get to use all these lenses and mirrors to set up the laser for my experiment.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
A lot of people don’t even know that optics exists! I was lucky to have an aunt who’s an optics professor who told me all about her work.
Any proud moments on the job?
There are all sorts of micro-victories. I have been known to do a little dance when the laser light first appears on the camera, or when I make the first measurement of something that was completely unknown before.
What about any memorable missteps?
There are a lot of moments of “oops, it’s not working because the laser’s not on”.
What do you never leave the house without?
Although they’re phasing out everywhere else, business cards are super useful in an optics lab. They’re just the right size to hold in a laser beam to see where it’s going. They even work on normally invisible ultraviolet lasers, since the whiteners in the paper will glow orange.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
See if you can find a way to do research in an optics lab in undergrad. Ideally, paid research, so you’ll have more time for it and they’ll also value your time more highly. Some universities have programs that pay undergrads to do research, and the NSF also has a summer research program called Research Experience for Undergraduates.