Investing in the next generation of photonics leaders

As an Early Career Researcher, Dr Natalie Wheeler knows the challenges she and her peers face when trying to “cross the barrier” from postdoc to research group leader. Space to develop ideas while having the support of colleagues and line managers who see the bigger picture, along with a funding source that provides longevity, are all needed to become an independent researcher. Thankfully for Dr Wheeler, she has experienced this on her way to being appointed as Co-Investigator at The Future Photonics Hub.

“Everyone knows the jump from being a postdoc to being more independent is a big one and a tricky one,” said Natalie. “But having the necessary support behind you, enables you to navigate that challenge.”

A supportive environment

Natalie came to the University of Southampton in 2010, initially to work on an ambitious European project on the fabrication of hollow-core microstructured optical fibres (HCFs) for telecommunications applications. As well as the project’s objectives, the University’s international reputation for optical fibre research and early discussions with the Southampton team, drew Natalie to the south coast.

“Hollow-core fibres are a speciality of optical fibre. Instead of guiding light in glass, you’re guiding it in air,” Natalie explained. “This creates unique and improved properties compared to conventional fibres. Southampton has a prestigious reputation for optical fibre research – there are only two places in the country to make HCFs and Southampton is one of them. That reputation and the ambition and scope of the European project were some of the reasons why I came to Southampton. The project also provided lots of opportunity for collaboration and the length of the project was really attractive – it was well supported and had a long-term ambition, which is something I really wanted at the start of my career.”

Natalie has stayed within the Microstructured Optical Fibre research area but has moved on to work on different projects. In 2014, she applied for a Royal Society Research Fellowship. She was encouraged to apply for the five-year Fellowship by her line manager and was given support with the application. Her successful application secured funding for research into the fabrication of next generation low loss and low bend sensitivity hollow-core fibres for mid-infrared wavelengths. Apart from fibre fabrication, Natalie’s research is also focussed on gas-based applications of HCF technology, including absorption and Raman-based gas sensors and frequency metrology.

Natalie admits that without the encouragement from her colleagues, she may not have secured the Fellowship, and the Fellowship itself provides an element of security. “It was a massive boost,” she said. “Receiving such a grant allows you to look to the future. You have some security and stability, so you can plan ahead and develop other ideas.

“The support I’ve received from colleagues, alongside the Fellowship, has allowed me to develop as an independent researcher. The focus of a fellowship is always to do excellent science, but also with scope to enable you to develop other skills, such as leadership. This gives you the confidence to make the jump from post-doc to taking on more responsibility. You’re able to apply for your own funding and build your own team. At the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), we remain collegial as a whole research group, but you also want freedom to pursue your own ideas, manage your own projects and to manage students.

“The Fellowship has definitely accelerated my career progression – though it’s not the only way to do it and there are alternative routes. This role and progression are still very challenging, but I have been lucky to have such support through the Fellowship and from Southampton colleagues. Fellowships are also extremely competitive, and support from your line manager and the broader University team really helps you through the application process.”

Work and home life balance  

During her time in Southampton, Natalie has had three children and taken time out of her career for each child. As a busy working mother, she admits that she needs both the support of her line managers and their trust to maintain her research career.

The University, the Hub and the Fellowship promote flexible working patterns. For example, the Fellowship can cover a part time role (down to 60 per cent). “Having support for my working pattern has been a big help in sustaining a research career and in my progression,” Natalie said. “I am trusted to get on with things, I am not micromanaged, and I am given the space and the freedom to develop ideas. Having three children at home, this support has been essential. I’m trying to meet the needs of both home and work, so the flexibility and trust help me manage those needs.”

Working within the Hub

Natalie is now managing two PhD students and developing her research area looking at applications including hollow-core fibre gas sensing as well as working on the lifetime and long term performance of these fibres. She plans to recruit another PhD student and postdoc to help further her research in the area of gas-filled HCFs.

“Because the geometry of the fibres is unique they contain gas throughout the fibre length, within the core and cladding holes and this is different to a more conventional fibre,” explained Natalie. “These types of fibres are close to being deployed in a wide range of applications, but the long-term performance of the fibres in different environments is an open question. We recently showed that a hollow-core fibre contains gas at lower pressure than atmospheric just after fabrication. This is important as when you expose the fibre to atmosphere after it’s made it draws in gases from the surrounding environment. But what’s the impact of this over a period of time? This is one of several important questions that we need to answer.”

Looking to the future

With many research streams starting to take shape across her involvement in the Hub and other research projects at the University, the future looks busy. Natalie is also waiting to hear if her Fellowship will be extended for a further three years when the original term ends next year. She has also applied for other funding to further her research, which she is waiting to hear about.

She said: “We’ve maintained good momentum in the last year, despite the pandemic but it’s a challenge to keep it going. It is challenging to combine current work with the need to also have a longer term vision and the need to continue to apply for funding. But that’s the benefit of a supportive environment – they invest in you, so you can think further ahead. They see beyond the current situation and can see the long-term future potential.

“That’s why programmes like the Hub are so important in developing young researchers’ careers. While providing an environment to carry out fundamental research, they also engage industry and provide new links and collaborations on bigger timescales. You are able to see research translate to impact and have the opportunity to take part in the whole process. The size of these programmes allows flexibility while remaining ambitious and encouraging young researchers to take risks in a supportive space.”