[Interview] Semiconductor Photonics - Dr. Kirsty Annand

Posted 15/4/2019 by Georgina Deas

This week we’re talking to Dr. Kirsty Annand. Having recently completed her PhD, Kirsty now specialises in building long-term, sustainable knowledge partnerships within the Semiconductor Photonics landscape at the University of Glasgow. We asked her all about her career, her thoughts on the Semiconductor Photonics industry, and where she thinks Scotland fits in its ability to nurture future talent within the industry.

 

Could you firstly tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

My name is Kirsty Annand, I am currently a Knowledge Exchange Associate for Semiconductor Photonics at the University of Glasgow. What that basically means is that I work really closely with my academic team to develop and enhance long-term and sustainable knowledge exchange partnerships, both with companies and other stakeholders in the area of Semiconductor Photonics.

I've not always worked within the Semiconductor Photonics landscape. In fact, I completed my PhD just last year at the University of Glasgow, where I characterised materials used for the containment of nuclear fuel in reactors, in an attempt to improve their safety. My project was supported by a really active industrial collaborator, called Amec Foster Wheeler, and it's through those industry engagements and collaborations that I realised that I really enjoyed collaborating with business and seeing what the industrial drivers to research projects were. Following this, I spent 9 months as a Research Assistant and was involved in a new, ground-breaking, collaborative research and development project called Mirage. This project brought together four companies and two funders, to place Scotland at the forefront of the global sensors and imaging market, in order to deliver some significant economic growth for the country. Specifically, I drew on my materials background and used transmission electron microscopy to characterise the chemistry of antimonide semiconductors for fabrication of next-generation sensing technologies. My scientific background, coupled with my close links with both academia and industry in this area meant that I was ideally placed to support innovation and collaboration across the semiconductor landscape; and that's how I ended up where I am today.

 

Is there anyone or anything that's influenced your career choices?

I think as a young woman working in a STEM subject, from an early age you really have to seek out some strong and influential role models. My mum has always been my biggest role model. I think getting a mum involved in young people's choices, especially in young woman's choices, from primary school age, is imperative to ensure that girls continue to study STEM. Teacher’s play a vital role alongside mum, providing a supportive sounding block for young women, and relaying back to parents that there is an exciting place in STEM for their child. Personally, I think it’s also incredibly important to try and seek out role models outwith your own organisation as you progress in the field; but that can be really hard because oftentimes you're asking someone for advice and you don't really know exactly what you're asking for. Scottish Women in Technology (SWiT) are a great non-profit organisation who are really making waves right now, ensuring that women working in technology are championed, celebrated and supported. They're an excellent resource for women who are looking to seek out opportunities or make connections across the country.

 

Are there any challenges that you've had to overcome in your career?

I think academia is a very niche, very special place. The move from academia into industry is an incredibly challenging one. As an academic, you are in a bubble, researching a topic, which is often extremely focused, and very personal. At the point where you're looking to move into industry, it can be incredibly daunting to try to understand what the industry is necessarily looking for from graduates. Since I started my position as Knowledge Exchange Associate, I've been in meetings where CEOs or CTOs have said that they're massively pushing to recruit new talent – so the jobs are there. And I believe that there is a plethora of unparalleled talent in our graduates who are still incredibly excited by science, and what it can achieve. Matching these up is where we struggle. I found it really difficult to try and summarise or think about the skills that I had that would be translatable into industry or business, and I think that's one place where we could do better. We can do more to support our graduates to plug this leaky point in the pipeline.

 

What are your views of the photonics industry in Scotland at the moment?

I think the Photonics landscape in Scotland right now is very strong. We have around 1500 tech companies in Scotland; our tech sector is growing two times the growth rate of the Scottish economy. Photonics underpins most, if not all, of the new developments of technology currently. Photonics really is the enabling technology, the hidden technology, which lies within many of our devices that we have in our pockets or that we use every day. Photonics is in action when we scan our groceries at checkout doing self-scan, when our phone recognises our face to answer that Snapchat. Photonics is there and the demand for the delivery of ever increasingly, rapid, small, integrated devices, means that photonics is really an exciting place to work, and an exciting and challenging landscape.

 

Is there anything in particular that excites you about the photonics market right now?

In Scotland, specifically, I think we're building a really excellent innovation infrastructure. Scotland is a leading Centre for Research and Development of Quantum Technologies, in particular. I think Quantum Technologies are really exciting right now. For example for applications in next-generation allium nitride laser technologies, for implementation in quantum sensors and for applications in other markets, such as display light sources, subsea and terrestrial communications and medical industry implementation. Scotland has also got strong links to Data Science and Artificial Intelligence; particularly AI in health care, which is promising to enable better patient diagnostics and treatments and outcomes; so I think that's particularly exciting right now.

 

With first hand knowledge of the Scottish higher education system, where do you think Scotland fits with its abilities to nurture future talent for the UK tech industry?

That's a really big question; and if I'm honest, I don't think anyone really has a one-stop answer that they can provide. I'd like to be able to click my fingers and really ensure that everyone works collaboratively but I think the problem is that the Photonics landscape, from my initial view, is quite fragmented and so I think it can be difficult to link up where higher education and industry can work collaboratively together to ensure that we have the next leaders of the future.

Scotland has one of the highest densities of higher education institutes in Europe. We have some excellent research programs and undergraduate and PhD opportunities for people to do well in this area. However, I think that, similar to most other institutions, we need to learn how to engage and work better with local SMEs so that we're training our students in the types of skills that local businesses value. I think that Scotland has an excellent reputation for training and for equipping students with the technical knowledge in their areas but I think that a move towards equipping students in higher education with more practical skills and hands-on training would make them more valuable to the industry.

 

How do you solve the problem of leakage, people completing stem degrees and then going into non-STEM industries?

I think it has to be a multi-faceted approach. We currently have a lot of talent sitting in our graduates and it is true that, from personal experience, many of my female colleagues (and male colleagues in fact) have left STEM at that graduate level. They've been in education for 15 years, they've gone through an undergraduate degree, maybe a masters or PhD, are highly qualified, highly skilled, and anyone looking in from the outside would say that they were a perfect candidate for that position in industry or as an academic. One of my good friends has moved to become a teacher; someone else has left to work in a call centre. There’s been a few times now I've been speaking to those who have some responsibility for recruitment, and they say that they're looking for these skills, they're looking for people to fill those roles. I believe that the demand is there, and the people who have those skills are there, it's just making sure that we can we can catch them and keep them in STEM and keep them engaged and keep them excited about science.

I think that we really need to break down the barriers between industry and academia, make the industry more accessible for young people, highlight the opportunities and work together so that we're both training our students to meet the demands of industry.

I think we do lose a lot of women at that point as well. The crux of it is that it's often a confidence issue for women and I think that academia doesn't necessarily best train you to look at what your skills are, off the paper, off the job description. So when you're looking for a job in the industry and you look at a job description, it can be incredibly daunting especially in Tech, and it can be really focused on male drivers, like ‘tell me about a  time when you have achieved’, ‘when have you challenged’ and ‘are you brave, come and work for us’. That's not a language that women necessarily relate to. I think that we really need to take a good look at the job wording that we use to encourage more women to stay and feel like there's a place for them in the company that they're applying for.

 

Do you think the photonics industry invests in people's careers and development enough? Is there anything more that they can do?

I think there's always more to be done. I think that gender equity, equality and diversity are all buzzwords right now and everyone has good intentions, the photonics industry is no different. In starting this role, I have had some incredible support when I've been looking to promote equality, diversity and inclusivity in Photonics from the likes of Technology Scotland, who are really driving a great path to ensure that Photonics is put back on the government agenda. They're currently producing a white paper right now, which I think is a fantastic idea for providing the government with a view of Photonics in 2030. I think things are being done but we can always do more.

 

Do you think that academic and industrial collaboration in the Photonics industry and Scotland is sufficient and if not, how might this be improved?

I think that academic and industry collaboration in Photonics is vital and it is being done. We have some excellent collaborations within the University of Glasgow, for example with Compound Semiconductor Technologies, fabricating laser products for optical communications, and with QuantIC, looking to develop next generation Quantum Technologies. I think, again, part of the problem is that the landscape is somewhat fragmented but I do think that there are definitely a lot of initiatives that aim to promote academic and industry collaborations. Specifically, we have funds supported by the EPSRC Research Council called an ‘Impact Acceleration Account’ that aims to translate research into any form of impact; from product creation, to travel, and events to prototyping. Glasgow University also supports Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) and spin out and entrepreneurial activity.

Personally, as a Knowledge Exchange professional, I think that Knowledge Exchange and Technology Transfer are becoming buzzwords, more than they were say five or ten years ago. I think that there definitely seems to be a place for, or a need for, someone to bridge the gap between academic and industry collaborations and I think that’s still developing.

I also think that mindsets are changing, and people who've been working in Photonics for a number of years are on board with the fact that we need to not only to collaborate well between academic and the industry to meet the global challenges of our future, but also that we need to involve women and diverse groups in the conversation.

The Photonics industry is transforming, and I do think that as it continues to grow and diversify, that academic and industry collaboration in Scotland will strengthen.

 

What opportunities do you see for people coming into the photonics market? Are there more jobs available? Is it quite a challenging industry to get into it? Is it a good market at the moment?

Yes, it's an exciting time to be involved in Photonics. The growth of the Photonics market right now is significant. It's an exciting time to be involved in Optics and Photonics and I think Scotland has a vibrant sense of community. We are a small nation, but we are very active in our R&D. There are jobs available, it's just highlighting those positions to the right people and making sure that we get the right people in the industry moving forward.

 

Can you tell us a bit about the Opening up Photonics initiative that you have started?

Opening up Photonics was an initiative started by myself, Technology Scotland, The Institute of Physics and The Knowledge Transfer Network. It’s a platform for professionals in academia and industry to come together to discuss the future of the Photonics in the UK. The main remit of Opening up Photonics is to provide a forum for discussion and best practice suggestions regarding diversity inclusion and diversity in Photonics, with a particular focus on female successes in the area. It’s about understanding gender equity issues in the community, and taking real, measurable steps to improve the diversity in this landscape.

The first steps involved bringing hiring managers and people with some sort of clout in industry and academia together to talk about the state of play right now, language and conscious/unconscious bias, and what business and academia can do.

Follow on events are planned for summer 2019 in Wales, and another at the end of 2019 in Scotland. Our next Scottish event will focus on job-wording in adverts and how we can tackle the retention and promotion of women.

It's a very new, exciting initiative, but after the huge success of our launch event, I’m really excited to see where it goes.

 

What's one key piece of advice that you would give to people starting?

My one key piece of advice would be to network. You can't do anything alone. If you're in academia, you are at risk of being the product of one or a few of your supervisors. In industry, working alone will achieve little. I think that taking the initiative to speak to as many organisations and companies, and attending as many open days, technology days, and fairs as you can is so valuable.

In the future, you’ll need to work alongside these contacts, beside them, manage them, or lean on them for advice. Relationships are key to driving a strong and rewarding career for yourself in this industry.

 

 

Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. We find technical leaders for the 'Emerging and Enabling' and 'Deep Technology' industries. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, and software in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on 0131 510 8150

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