Optical Designer

Zoe Davidson says one of the most serendipitous things that has occurred in her life was not doing well in high school as it put her on her path - optoelectronics.

Image of graduate student Zoe Davidson

Career: part-time Optical Designer, Vodafone New Zealand
Programme: Bachelor of Technology (Honours) majoring in Optoelectronics.

After leaving high school, Zoe had intended to study engineering (specialising in Civil Engineering) and eventually build bridges.

“The standing joke in my family was my aim in life was to build a bridge and get over it,” she says. “But I did not do very well in my NCEA Level 3 exams and didn’t achieve the rank score I needed to get into Engineering.”

Instead, Zoe enrolled in Physics courses in her first semester. They were the equivalents to the same courses she would have studied in Engineering, and coincidentally, the same courses that make up the first semester of Optoelectronics*.

“I obtained very good grades that semester and was contacted by Professor John Harvey (the head of Optoelectronics at the time) who asked if I would like to join the programme.

“I did my research and signed up to study Optoelectronics, because I felt it gave me the best of both worlds - the theory of Physics and with the application of Engineering.”

Zoe speaks highly of her time in the Physics department.

“I loved the department because of how supportive it was. If you are struggling, there is help available at all levels - from your tutors and lab supervisors to lecturers and older students. I am still in touch with several of my lecturers and the supervisor of my honours project.”

After completing her degree, Zoe found employment with Vodafone, initially in their two-year graduate programme.

“My first year was spent with IP Transport Operations where I was working on the network, solving faults and implementing designs,” she explains. “This was an incredible experience as I learnt pretty fast how the network operates, and most importantly, how to fix it when it is broken.

“My second year was in IP Transport Design where I worked primarily in Optical Design. My main role was to design the required capacity on the optical fibres that run between key locations in the country and in our largest cities.

“As part of this team, I have worked on the deployment of the most innovative technologies. Our team was the first in the world to bring 400Gbps/wavelength technologies to market.”

After spending a year in this role, Zoe was offered a permanent position with the Optical Design team.  Her daily work is around optical technologies and their application in telecommunications.

“This is almost exactly what I studied at university. My degree has given me the understanding of how these technologies work. This makes my designs more accurate as I understand the rules around how different technology can be used.”

Zoe loves the challenge of working in a constantly evolving space.

“Every day is a new challenge and a new learning opportunity,” she says. “I get to work with the latest technologies in the telecommunications space and we are consistently given the opportunity to upskill ourselves. For example, our vendors bring in their engineers from all over the world to talk to us about these technologies.”

Another aspect of her job that Zoe enjoys is volunteer work with Vodafone’s communities.

“Staff are encouraged to give back in some way, so I got involved in Code Club, a worldwide organisation that teaches coding to children aged seven to 12 who otherwise would have no exposure to a digital world.”

At the end of 2018, Zoe left her fulltime role at Vodafone to pursue a PhD in photonics at the University of Bristol in the UK.

“I am now a doctoral candidate on a University of Bristol scholarship studying in the Faculty of Engineering with the photonics team,” she says. “My supervisor is Judy Rorison and my research question is to investigate novel semi-conductor materials for photonic absorption and emission.

“I am also contracting back to Vodafone in a part-time capacity.”

Zoe advises people to make the most of their time at university:

  • Make friends who are in your papers and treasure them | “They will understand when it gets hard and be celebrating along with you when you finally figure out an equation or do well in a lab.”
  • Join a club | “There are clubs for everything and everyone. Find a group of like-minded people and it will make your university experience that much more enjoyable.”
  • Do an exchange for a semester | “Doing an exchange greatly expands your network of people, teaches you life skills and leads to friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. I could not recommend something to do during your time at University more.” [In her second year, Zoe received a 360-degree scholarship to help support her six-month student exchange programme to the University of Exeter in the UK.]

Zoe’s advice to future physicists?

“Don’t think that the only career available to a Physics graduate is in academia. The skills you learn in Physics are transferable, applicable in the real world and desired by employers - even if you never need to apply Schrödinger’s Equation again in your entire life!”

She believes there are three key life skills that Physics teaches you:

  1. It teaches you out-of-the-box thinking when approaching a problem. This is incredibly important in the working world. People always want more for less and sometimes you have to be creative with your approach to a problem and try new ways of working.
  2. You learn how to be analytical with your thinking. Being able to critically analyse problems as well as their possible solutions is an important part of working in the real world. Your employers want to see clear reasoning identifying what the problem is and why you think you have the best solution.
  3. And most importantly, you learn how to structure information in a way that is understandable to others. While you may be an expert in what you do, most people you work with on a day-to-day basis are not. Studying Physics teaches you how to communicate important information to everyone, not just the technical specialists.

But don’t forget to have fun, she adds. “Doing well academically is important, but so too is having hobbies and a social life. Companies want to hire real people with real interests who know how to work in a team and with others. Getting straight ‘As’ is not enough if you do not have these skills as well.”
 *The programme is now a BSc(Hons) Photonics