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Thriving in a man's world

17 Jun 2002

Ursula Keller is one of Europe's most successful academics in the field of laser physics. She talks to Nadya Anscombe about how she has survived and thrived in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

From Opto & Laser Europe October 2001

Someone once told Ursula Keller that she is a scary woman. If you think that strong, intelligent, ambitious women are scary, then yes, Keller is a scary woman. At the age of 34, she became the first ever female tenure professor in a technical subject at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. The institute's ultrafast-laser physics laboratory, which Keller set up in 1993, is recognized today as a highly successful group, with around 25 researchers and two spin-off companies.

Keller has an outspoken approach that she says was probably honed during her time as a member of the technical staff at AT&T's, now Lucent's, Bell Labs in the US. "At Bell Labs, people don't mind you being odd, obnoxious or strange - just as long as you deliver results, you're OK. I became a very outspoken and pushy person there." After a 10-year absence from her native Switzerland, Keller was offered a professor's position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ). By then, she had married US entrepreneur Kurt Weingarten and found it a tough decision to leave the US. "In the US you are encouraged to do the things you are scared of - there is a culture that says, 'You can do it'. There are also more women in my field."

The ETHZ, however, made Keller an offer she could not refuse. Her income enabled her husband to grow his entrepreneurial business with great success. Weingarten has built two companies on work done by Keller's group: Time Bandwidth Products, which specializes in passively mode-locked lasers; and GigaTera, which is developing components for high-speed and long-reach optical-communication systems.

Keller has no desire to become involved in running the businesses. "I have a full-time job. I love building lasers and exploring new frontiers, testing how far we can go and finding out why things do not work." She also believes that it is important that she continues to carry out fundamental research. "Industry focuses too much on short-range research and does not finance fundamental work. However, fundamental science is very important - you never know what you might find."

Attosecond science is Keller's latest project. Her aim is the development and application of a table-top source of coherent, soft X-ray pulses with pulse durations of attoseconds and kilohertz pulse repetition rates. The source will derive from high harmonic generation in rare gases, driven by a high-intensity, ultrafast Ti:sapphire laser that is being developed in-house. The attosecond pulses will provide a new tool to be used not only for X-ray spectroscopy, but also for probing electronic motion on the atomic scale for the first time.

Work is also being carried out on all-solid-state ultrafast lasers and novel semiconductor devices, both of which are based on the semiconductor-saturable absorber mirrors (SESAMs) that Keller's group has been developing and patenting for 10 years. SESAMs enable the simple, stable, self-starting intracavity passive modelocking of diode-pumped solid-state lasers and have allowed the group to push the performance of these lasers to unprecedented levels.

Keller's enthusiasm for her subject is obvious. "Ultrafast-laser physics is an interdisciplinary research topic - you can move into other areas including biology, spectroscopy, metrology and engineering. That is why it is so exciting," she said.

But the road to the top has been a bumpy one for Keller. "Things really changed for me when I got pregnant. It was inconceivable to many people that I wanted children. And a lot of people do not think a woman can start a family and still have a demanding full-time job. They expect you to fail and it is socially acceptable for women to quit." Keller is highly critical of the European system for supporting new parents and believes that this is to blame for the lack of women in senior academic roles in science subjects. "In Sweden you are forced to take a year off. In Germany your employer must keep your job open for you, irrespective of when you decide to return, if at all," she said. Both of these approaches make employers more reluctant to hire women.

"The four months of maternity leave that we are given in Switzerland are not necessarily right for every woman. For example, I was ready to start work again after two months, but it was not possible to get reliable day-care for my child."

Although she admits that not all women want to have a career, she believes that those who do want to work full-time should be given better support. As far as her own chosen career is concerned, she thinks that more women would be encouraged to make the transition from undergraduate to faculty member if support, in the form of a reduced workload, was given for a full year after having a child. "We have to accept that during the early years of motherhood, a woman is more tired and cannot work as hard as before. It is crucial that her workload is reduced to the essentials."

Her ideas are echoed in a study on the status of female academics in science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. The study found that while the MIT has many female undergraduates, only a tiny proportion of these students stays on to join the faculty.

The study also found that each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty members, had started out believing that the gender discrimination problem had been "solved" by the previous generation. Gradually, however, they had come to the realization that the playing field was not yet level after all, and that this had an undeniable effect on both their personal and professional lives.

Keller can identify with this. She said: "Between the ages of 20 and 30, I believed that I could do anything and that nothing could stop me. But between 30 and 40 I got beaten up. It is a question of how you deal with it - you need a support structure and if there are no other senior female staff around, it is difficult to cope."

The MIT study found that female staff were becoming increasingly marginalized as they progressed through their careers. This was manifested in the many discrepancies between the treatment of female staff and their male counterparts: there were differences in levels of salary; space; resources; awards; inclusion on important committees and assignments within the department and externally - women faculty members received fewer outside offers, in spite of their professional accomplishments being equal to those of their male colleagues.

The study's most compelling conclusion is probably its assertion that the "discrimination consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty [members] even in the light of obvious goodwill".

While Keller admits that she "had phases where I understood why some people quit", she says she has received a huge amount of support from her group and her husband.

Keller has now reached the top of her career ladder, but she is clear on where she wants to head next: "I want to carry on doing research and I hope that the next 10 years will be a little less stressful."

And her advice for female readers of OLE hoping to emulate her success? "Do whatever looks interesting, even if it scares you. Push yourself - you will be surprised by what you find. Don't be shy," she said. "And be very selective about who you marry!" Keller's group www.iqe.ethz.ch/ultrafast/

Time Bandwidth Products www.tbwp.com

GigaTera www.gigatera.com

MIT study http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html

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