Focus on research: Dr Fatima Gunning, IPIC

Fatima Gunning, IPIC
Dr Fatima Gunning, IPIC

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16 November 2017 | 0

Backed by Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC) is home to 100 researchers at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork. Dr Fatima Gunning spoke to TechCentral.ie about her word, research across borders and the challenge of diversity.

Many researchers we have talked to have come from overseas. What attracted you to Ireland?
The opportunity to move to Ireland came 14 years ago, when the Corning Research Centre (CRC) in the UK, where I was working as a senior researcher, closed down as a consequence of the dotcom crash. Six members of the CRC optical systems team, me included, joined forces and wrote a proposal for a Science Foundation Ireland grant to undertake research in optical communications at the Tyndall National Institute.

We formed the Photonic Systems Group at Tyndall in May 2003. My husband is Irish and I loved the country so he encouraged me to continue with my passion working in science, and come to Cork. I haven’t regretted it for a moment – especially since our children were born here and are very clearly ‘rebels’.

Tell us about your current research into telecoms and devices.
I work on telecommunications challenges like how to maximise the bandwidth of underground glass optical fibres.

I also research new glass optical fibre designs that may replace currently installed optical fibres. To do that we need photonic devices that perform better than those available commercially.

I work very closely with the optical and electronic devices teams, where I embed their prototypes in my metro/long-haul test bed to assess their feasibility. Many of these devices are grown from raw materials here at Tyndall.

Occasionally we chance upon novel effects and that encourage us to revisit the underlying physics.

For example, we’ve recently measured a strange ‘peak’ on the frequency response of a photonic device that weren’t expecting – it turned out that it was an unexpected intrinsic resonance inside the device due to reflections of the facets.

More recently, our efforts are turning to autonomous optical networks, with greater reliance on software defined network controllers that access all the way down to the physical layer and control some fundamental physical properties of the devices. This can be used to vary the capacity of an optical network so the supplied bandwidth better matches customer demand. This way, it could provide very high capacities in response to peak demands and reduced capacities in response to low demand. The knock-on effect is that we can moderate and reduce energy consumption.

Looking at the performance of new devices coming out from IPIC, what projects have excited you?
It is particularly exciting to take possession of a device developed from an initial design concept a year earlier, worked on by a cross-disciplinary team of as many as 40 researchers and technicians, and insert it to the test bed to evaluate its performance, with an end-goal of down-streaming it into a commercial optical system. It is exhilarating.

One of my students, Eoin Russell, and I are working with Brian Corbett and James O’Callaghan from the devices team in IPIC on a new modulator to operate at a wavelength of 2 microns.

A modulator is something that converts an electronic data signal (say 1 or 0) into light (where a ‘1’ switches the device ‘on’ and a ‘0’ switches the device off).

We will demonstrate how we can use the fourth optical transmission ‘window’ (currently there are three: 0.85-, 1.3- and 1.55-microns), which is a low-loss and low-latency ‘sweet spot’ using new optical fibre geometries that replace a glass core with air – some people call them ‘holey fibres’.

These same modulators that operate at 2 microns can be used in sensing applications, like the measurement of trace gas. James fabricated these devices, and Eoin is testing them in the lab as unpackaged, ‘bars’ of semiconductor chips using DC and RF probes. We are aiming to add this device to our wavelength division multiplexed optical transmission test bed.

On your research supervisor of the year award, how important is the cultivation of new talent to a university faculty?
It is important to search for new talent whilst continuing to foster our existing talent. Ireland needs to train and develop, engage and retain a highly skilled workforce in photonics – a key enabling technology across Irish industry.

We also need to ensure that our students have more than just technical skills, they should also have the opportunity to build up transferable skills, in particular communications, to inform industry and engage with the public at large.

We find that many of our alumni do not end up working on the same topic as their PhD. However, they do use the skills they learned like the ability to solve critical problems, to collaborate, to work under pressure and to deadlines, to be diligent and accountable, and to communicate.

Has being a supervisor made you a better researcher?
Yes, well I hope so. As a supervisor you have the chance to look at the big picture. The students and staff in my team are working on different aspects of the wider research goals, which means you can investigate some aspects in detail, while others work on full network systems, for example.

I also draw on my experience in industry and how the demands are different because of commercial imperatives.

I studied for my bachelors and masters degrees in physics back in Brazil. The skills I acquired were sufficiently universal that when the opportunity to work at British Telecom Laboratories arose during my PhD I was able to hit the ground running. Science degrees are extremely portable.

You have developed a reputation as a passionate diversity advocate. What are the main challenges you have found in attracting more girls and minorities into STEM?
Diversity is very important in research and innovation. We are all different, we all have different backgrounds and experiences, which means that we think differently and ask different questions.

Research is all about asking questions. Innovation is about being creative with research. We need differing views and opinions in order to become leaders in research. The only way to achieve this is through fostering diversity.

There are many challenges to reducing inequality. For example, increasing gender representation in STEM, particularly in physics and engineering by addressing issues such as stereotyping and bias.

We need to look closely at the day-to-day behaviours that may undermine people and prevent them from reaching their full potential.

I am currently chair of the Empowering Women Committee at Tyndall, and for the last year and a half we have been working to raise awareness of inequality, unconscious bias, and introducing role models. Many of the actions we are taking are beneficial to everyone. We are bringing in leaders to talk about their journeys, and working on a mentoring scheme for all staff.

We need to provide a work environment that stimulates people to be creative and innovative, who question the status-quo. We need diversity to enable all this.

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