Five powerful perspectives for the Optics Laboratory
Implementing medical device optics projects like a novel measurement scheme, or bringing up a breadboard prototype for the first time, is a dynamic and messy endeavour. I’d like to share five key recommendations for approaching such journeys based on my 25 years of designing and implementing laser-based measurements.
Recently, my colleague Ryan shared 10 practical tips for working in the optics lab. Ryan’s valuable insights revolved around creating an optics lab environment that is “clean, organized, efficient, and produces great data.” I characterize the advice in this blog as creating a mental environment that is “clean, organized, efficient, and produces great data for medical device optics projects.”
Have a plan before you enter the lab
Before you power on your laser, take the time to lay out a measurement protocol, and a plan of attack. This will create an organizing framework for your activities, create a context for the particular activity in which you’re currently engaged, and help you understand clearly, at each point in time, where you are in your overall measurement process.
Then your plan will change.
Particularly if you’re performing this build or experiment for the first time, the reality “on the ground” will almost always diverge from what you considered while laying out a detailed plan in your office. That’s okay! It’s difficult to consider all possible options and outcomes when imagining your measurement “in the abstract” – particularly when the universe throws you a curve ball. Nonetheless, having taken the time to think about the measurement plan in advance will leave you much better situated to understand when you’ve started to deviate from that plan, and much better prepared to spin in a new direction.
Make a plan.
Take data when you can – but not mindlessly
My graduate work involved UV laser interrogation of single atoms confined in an ultrahigh vacuum environment using a radiofrequency ion trap. Needless to say, the laboratory setup was complex. Usually, we would arrive in the lab sometime between 8 AM and 9 AM – on a lucky day, we’d be ready to take data by 5 PM. If we’d called it quits sharply at 5, we would never have made any progress at all.
I’m not advocating a poor work-life balance, but if something is working – take some data while all the plates are spinning! When you’re performing a new type of measurement, or powering up a breadboard system for the first time, a whole army of gremlins is lurking in the wings waiting to attack. Take some data before they notice that the equipment is working! You never know how long it will take to get it working again…
When the data starts to flow, keep going.
On the flip side, don’t take data mindlessly – otherwise you will find out that you have GB of useless numbers, rather than useful data.
Develop intuition before you go into the lab
In the heat of the moment (particularly if it’s late at night), it’s not so straightforward to tell useless numbers from useful data. One of the key learnings I’ve had in my career is to take the time to form expectations before you go into the lab. This entails understanding the fundamental capabilities of your equipment – but also developing some expectations of the underlying physical model that’s generating your data. Whether it be by analytic models, numerical simulation, “back-of-the envelope” estimates, or even just thinking about how you expect the experiment to behave, intuition is priceless.
Of course, it’s almost-always wrong!
But that’s okay, too…. You will find that laying the intellectual framework ahead of time will leave you far better-equipped to make sense of inconsistencies, and to modify or replace your mental models.
Walk into the lab with informed intuition.
Keep a careful record as you go
This goes without saying – but is remarkably challenging to actually do when your measurement plan has been blown out of the water and you’re mired in a morass of confusion about what the incoming data mean. But – of course! – it is at exactly this point that it is most important to keep a methodical record of not only what you’re seeing but what you’re doing. Even if you are so lucky as to be acquiring meaningful data in the lab, nothing can post-factually convert that data into meaningless numbers faster than not recording the context of acquisition.
Even at 2 AM, take the time to keep a careful record as you go.
The universe is always right
This is my final insight, and it’s a powerful one: be humble in the face of the universe. The data that you are acquiring are always correct – they may just be telling you the answer to a question you didn’t realize you were asking, or screaming at you that you forgot to think about a key parameter or systematic error.
When the data are not making sense, ask yourself what it was that your equipment were actually measuring.
As a case in point, consider Penzias and Wilson. When they first turned on their ultra-sensitive microwave antenna back in 1964, Penzias and Wilson saw an unexpected source of background noise. Putting their knowledge of expected performance together with some theoretical work about to be published by Jim Peebles led them to realize that they had been the first people to detect the cosmic microwave background! This effort won them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.
Don’t ask why your data are wrong: ask what your data are telling you.
The universe is not only always right – it’s also much more clever than you are (or, at least, than I am). Following the above advice certainly doesn’t guarantee that all your measurements will yield perfectly clear results on the first try. However, my experience over the years has been that if you do keep the above perspectives in mind, you will reach clear results more quickly, and with significantly less wandering through the “vale of tears” than might otherwise be the case.
I hope this blog helps you mentally prepare for medical device optics projects. I’d enjoy hearing tips and advice from others. Our optics team is always eager to work on challenging medical device projects. Click here if you would like a free 30 minute consultation.
Brian King is Principal Optical Systems Engineer at StarFish Medical. Previously Manager of Optical Engineering and Systems Engineering at Cymer Semiconductor, Brian was an Assistant Professor at McMaster University. Brian holds a B.Sc in Mathematical Physics from SFU, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Colorado at Boulder.