SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION: Biophotonics graduate student reaches out to young students

March 6, 2008
Through a grant from the Optical Society of America Foundation, Ruby Raheem of the University of Edinburgh recently traveled to Ghana, Dubai, and India to give optics demonstrations to high school and college students.


Ruby Raheem does graduate-level biophotonics research at the University of Edinburgh, but when she's not using optics to probe into the molecular mechanism of living cells, she's organizing optics activities on campus, and dedicating time to reach out to young students. She is particularly interested in encouraging girls to pursue math and science studies. Recently, Ruby traveled to Ghana, Dubai, and India to give optics demonstrations to high school and college students through a grant from the Optical Society of America Foundation. We recently caught up with Ruby to learn about her studies, outreach work, and travel adventures.

"When I was growing up in India," says Raheem, "there were poor resources for modern education, but Kerala, my home, had invested a lot in the education system. I acquired the basic foundation in physics that gave me the freedom to continue my education in the U.S. But I also knew that there were millions of highly intelligent and motivated children in India and other parts of the world who did not have the opportunity that I had. I felt that it was my duty to give back to these children."

Raheem's opportunity came when she had a paper accepted at the first International Commission on Optics [ICO] conference in Ghana. Funded by a grant from the Optical Society of America Foundation [OSAF] to the Albannach Alliance Student Chapter of OSA [AASCOSA], she began her optical outreach adventure at the University of Cape Coast, located in a spectacular coastal town in western Africa. Although she was delayed for two days in Dubai due to unusual fog, she arrived in time to present her paper and conduct a series of optics demonstrations.

Two afternoons during the conference were set aside to meet with students from local schools, who were brought to the university's Education Centre for the workshops. The audience the first day included 25 girls ages 15 to 18 from the University Practice Secondary School; the second day she met with 25 girls from Ghana National College. Raheem presented a talk on optical illusions and demonstrated a diffractive-optical-element color display and the use of polarizers for decoding mystery messages. She was joined by Professor Maria Calvo from the University of Madrid, who talked about the optics of the eye, using a laser beam and a pair of lenses to show the effects of nearsightedness and farsightedness.

Students and their teachers utilized Optics Suitcases, developed by the OSA Rochester Local Section. The suitcases contain instructions and materials for easy experiments involving properties of light and optics. The students were highly engaged and posed questions on topics that ranged from optics and physics to Raheem's academic experience and OSA participation.

Raheem was impressed with the educational background of the students. "They had physics in their curriculum, and I was amazed to learn that they were familiar with wave optics and had studied interference and diffraction," she said. "The majority were interested in a career in biology, and a third were really interested in math and physics. They responded well to my questions on the principles of optics. They were relaxed, excited, and had a lot to say."

Dubai, UAE, was the next stop on Raheem's itinerary. She gave the Optical Illusion talk to undergraduate students in Interior Design, where she demonstrated how the materials in the optics kit could be used for creative art shows. The following day she addressed biotechnology students at Manipal University, finding that the students and their teachers were equally absorbed in the presentation and demonstrations.

In Kerala, India, Raheem's final destination, two colleges and two schools made time for optics outreach. She spoke to physics masters and undergraduate girls, co-education engineering students, high school boys and high school girls, presenting seven sessions in all, some with nearly a hundred students. "The students in Kerala were similar in behavior to the Ghanaian students," she ays. "They were reserved and very well behaved. They preferred to talk to me at the end of a session and even though they responded well to questions, very few asked questions during the sessions."

Raheem is committed to optics outreach. "Typically there are a large number of capable students in the underdeveloped nations, especially girls, who do not have the support or resources to study physics and optics" she says. "I am grateful for the opportunity to take optics to new places."

Ruby Raheem was born in Kerala, in southern India, and received her undergraduate education at Providence Women's College, Calicut University. She studied physics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, and then moved to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, VA, to continue her studies in engineering and fiber optics. After gaining practical experience in industrial R&D at AMD and Corning, she returned to academia to pursue biophotonics research at the University of Edinburgh. As a second-year undergraduate at Providence, she helped start the first College Physics Association, which is still going strong today. She is also a founding member of the first OSA Student Chapter in Scotland, the Albannach Alliance Student Chapter of OSA [AASCOSA].

The OSA Foundation, created in 2002, is dedicated to supporting programs that advance youth science education, provide optics education and resources to underserved populations, and provide career and professional development resources.

GRACE KLONOSKI is the senior director, Foundation and the Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036; e-mail: [email protected];

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