Clear Water SC Blog
Mindset & productivity

Coaching Like Aligning Lasers

During my PhD in chemistry, I worked with lasers.
OoOOoo. Aaahhh.

We used lasers and microscopes to illuminate individual nanoparticles (or nanoparticle assemblies) and see how those nanoparticles (or nanoparticle assemblies) bounced around different colors of light or turned that light into heat.

In dry, technical terms, this is called spectroscopy. When studying nanoparticles, you could call it nanoparticle spectroscopy.

This is basic research behind a lot of nanoparticle technologies you might hear about, like nanoparticles that can kill cancer cells with the assistance of light, nanostructures that could help make our computers even smaller, nanostructures and quantum computing, nanoparticle coatings that kill viruses, nanoparticle coatings that capture sunlight or make buildings cooler.

This kind of research informs us about what nanomaterials can or cannot do, and therefore how we should or should not try to use them.

Back to the cool stuff, lasers and microscopes (actually, they're very hot).

This kind of research might mean a graduate student spends 6-8 hours aligning the laser and microscope to spend another 6-10 hours actually studying the nanomaterial.

What does it mean to align the system?

It means that the light travels on a path such that it enters the microscope at the desired intensity and angle, illuminates the objects (like nanoparticles) you want it to, then light from one object gets focused through the microscope, bounced off a mirror inside the microscope to leave the microscope in a straight line and enter the detector in a straight line and an intensity strong enough that the signal gets registered on the computer it is connected to but not so strong that it fries the detector. (This last part is like looking at objects illuminated by sunlight with no problem but frying our eyes if looking at the sun directly.)

Aligning the system means getting a series of 10-30 optics - mirrors, lenses, pinholes, curved mirrors, etc to shape, tune, and direct your beam of light.

Usually, you will know when something is not aligned - the beam isn't round, it isn't bright enough to be detected, it's missing your sample, etc - but the system will unlikely tell you why.

Aligning means checking your signals, and with a sense of how the components work together, doing simple tests to see if each piece is present, positioned, and adjusted so you can study your micro- or nanoscopic objects.

Maybe you use an index card to look at the beam earlier in the path, maybe before the microscope. No problems there?

The problem is in the microscope or after.

Seeing the same issues, still not aligned?

Look earlier. Maybe look at the beam before the first 12 mirrors and lenses. No problems there? Look earlier. After the first 8 optics, still a problem? Maybe after the first 3.

Of course throughout this, do check that the devices that should be on are plugged in and powered on.

What has this got to do with coaching?

I recently coached someone looking to get on track to grow one stream of work in their career. They wanted coaching support to get clear on the vision and then a plan to get on track.

We dove in. Let's work on the vision first. Twenty minutes into the session, it seemed clear that they seemed clear on the vision. They sounded like they knew it all along AND they knew the importance of each area they named, i.e. why they wanted it. They knew what they hoped it would look like and how good it felt to think about that goal.

They didn't need help with the vision.

What about the track? What's on the path from here to the vision?

They described known steps and no shortage of a track record in meeting goals at previous phases of life. Very little help needed with the track.

What else?

Health routines, family time, main work, time and activities spent on pleasure and spirituality, discipline, habits, hobbies, structuring their day, motivation... they seemed content with the areas of life they named.

So what was missing?

The work stream they wanted to develop just hadn't been structured in yet.

What else?

Sleep. After laying out so much for the first 40 minutes, they realized something basic. Check the power source. What could they do sustainably without sufficient sleep?

By the end of the session, my counterpart came up with some ideas about making small adjustments to their structure and fine-tuning their system to make more room for sleep and the step-by-step path for what they wanted to do.

There are many ways to coach and many reasons to coach. It turns out that this opportunity presented itself as a system of components working together and with enough investigation, we could identify what components to devote our mental energy to steer overall energy in the intended direction, perhaps with laser focus, and to check the power source.

Does any of this resonate with you?

For fun and a glimpse of what I mean - enjoy this 2011 video of yours truly in the laser lab, a bit more advanced in her spectroscopy career than her current one.