From Brazil with photonics – Tyndall researcher seeks to improve telecommunications

20 Jun 2014

Dr Fatima Gunning, staff researcher at the Photonic Systems Group in Tyndall National Institute in Cork and a senior researcher in the Department of Physics in University College Cork

Brazilian scientist Dr Fatima Gunning is developing new ways to help the internet cope with increased traffic, she tells Claire O’Connell.

With the World Cup under way in Brazil, millions of people around the world are glued to the matches on-screen. And they definitely don’t want their communications technology to fail at the moment of that crucial goal or controversial foul.

It’s not just the football – as we increasingly lean on the internet’s underlying fibre-optic technology to keep up to speed with events, how can we ensure the optical fibre can take the load? Dr Fatima Gunning – who herself is no stranger to Brazil – is on a mission to find out.

Pushing fibre to the limit

“We all use the internet via phone, tablets, laptops, computers and even TV,” says Gunning, a staff researcher at the Photonic Systems Group in Tyndall National Institute and a senior researcher in the Department of Physics in University College Cork. “And all this information, at the end of the day, will be transmitted via a an optical fibre cable.”

Although the fibre-optic cables that link regions of the world can hold an enormous capacity of information, the traffic caused by people and devices pushing information around is likely to present a problem for fibre as it reaches its information capacity limit, according to Gunning.

“My research investigates ways to push this limit further, finding alternative solutions and even making the use of this existing capacity more efficient,” she explains. “We want to figure out how we can use the full capacity of the deployed fibre and so avoid the disruption and expense of the need to install more fibre.”

Physics switches on the light

Growing up in Brazil, Gunning found she was drawn to maths in primary school. “It didn’t require memorising, I could work out the solutions,” she recalls.

She and her brother also exhibited early engineering skills and frequently fixed small electrical items. “In hindsight, this was a very good hands-on experience, diagnosing the issues and solving problems.”

Torn between studying engineering and physics at college, she eventually decided on physics to satisfy her curiosity about the world around her. “I wanted to understand how things worked” says Gunning. “I wanted to answer questions such as ‘why is the sky blue?’, ‘why does the road seem wet in a distance on very hot days?’, ‘why do the stars look sometimes red, sometimes blue?’, ‘why are lightning and thunder not synchronised in time?’, ‘what’s the theory of relativity?’ and even ‘what does E=mc2 mean?'”

During her studies, Gunning had the opportunity to do some research in optics, and this switched on the light for her future career. “This was the moment that defined the area I really wanted my career path to follow – working with lasers, optical phenomena and changing properties of materials using a light beam.”

On the move

Completing her master’s degree and PhD saw Gunning spend time working with British Telecom’s Laboratories, and she landed her first job at the Corning Research Centre in the UK. Then she moved to Tyndall, where she helped to found the Photonics Systems Group in 2003.

“That was very exciting, and other skills became quite important then, too, like working with suppliers, purchasing, and negotiation,” she says. “It was a unique experience to build a lab from scratch and having to design the experiments rigorously in order to purchase the equipment wisely. So over the last 11 years, I have gained a lot of experience not only technically, but also in project management, teaching and mentoring.”

Now funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the European Commission, her research is looking to discover and engineer new solutions that can be applied to the telecommunications of the future, as well as spin-off uses of fibre-optic cable, such as using hollow-core photonic crystal fibre to measure the viscosity of tiny amounts of liquid.

Make connections

For young students who have an interest in science and engineering, she recommends doing a bit of research about different fields and talking to people who are working in them. “Be bold, write researchers an e-mail or contact them via LinkedIn,” she says. “The transition year in Ireland is a great opportunity to get into labs and meet researchers and it gets you through doors of potential third-level educators and employers.”

She also advises to get involved in events such as the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. “The more you know about science and its applications, the more you love it,” she says.

Brasil para sempre!

Gunning is staying put in Ireland during the World Cup, so like many of us she is also leaning on the internet to watch her favourite team. And which team might that be? “I am shouting for Brazil,” she says, laughing.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication