Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications
Dalma Novak isn’t just a pioneering figure in RF and fiber optic communications. She’s also a prominent leader and advocate for progress toward gender equality in the engineering field through IEEE. She is the co-founder of Mini-Circuits customer, Octane Wireless, a company that designs and manufactures RF and fiber optic communications solutions. Through her work, she has not only advanced the state of the art, but also influenced the lives and careers of countless women at all stages of their careers.
Novak was born to Hungarian parents in a small village in Croatia. When she was three years old, her family immigrated to Australia where she grew up and discovered her passion for engineering. She first began to realize just how disproportionate the ratio of women to men was in the engineering field during her undergraduate studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Especially as her courses became more specific and focused on electrical engineering, the number of women in her courses dwindled, but she remained un-deterred and graduated with first class honors in electrical engineering.
In 1988, Novak enrolled as a Ph. D student in the same department with her thesis focused on investigating the dynamic behavior of high-speed semiconductor lasers. After completing her doctoral studies, Novak’s career began as an academic after a professor in her program recruited her for the role. She spent many years in the academic field at several different institutions, including the Photonics Research Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, while also advancing her own research into the emerging area of fiber optics. Novak served as the Deputy Director of the Photonics Research Laboratory, and later as the Director of the Melbourne Division of the Australian Photonics Cooperative Research Center (APCRC).
At the University of Melbourne, Novak developed her own research program investigating fiber optic links in distributing wireless communication signals. Her goal was to explore new technologies capable of transporting signals in next-generation radio systems. She received several grants to support her research and recruited multiple post-doctorates and graduate students to her group.
Photonics Research – the science behind the generation, detection and manipulation of light
As her fiber-wireless project gained traction, Novak and her team traveled to renowned research labs around the world to present plenary talks and seminars about their findings. During her sabbatical in 2000, she traveled to the United States to further conduct fiber optics research at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). While she was at NRL, a colleague suggested she apply to a new startup, Corvis Corporation, that was building submarine fiber optic telecommunications networks that incorporated a new type of optical amplifier technology.
Initially caught off guard by the opportunity, Novak made a life-changing decision to leave her academic position in Australia to work in the private sector in the United States, essentially re-starting her career from scratch. She accepted the proposal and joined Corvis as Technical Lead of the Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) group.
As Novak gained experience, the opportunity arose for her to start her own company with the help of colleagues she met while working at Corvis. She and her partners wanted to create a company that offered innovative, highly efficient antennas and fiber optic antenna remoting solutions. After much hard work and perseverance, their company, Octane Wireless, grew into the successful, international venture it is today supporting military, law enforcement and commercial wireless applications.
Novak has also been involved with the IEEE for over 29 years, having joined as a volunteer when she was a student. She most recently served as the president of the IEEE Photonics Society and is a member of the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) group. In 2014, Novak officially launched the Women in Photonics Initiative, which serves to promote activities that support the participation, engagement and advancement of women in the photonics and optics industries. Mini-Circuits is grateful for the opportunity to interview Dalma Novak and share her perspective with the community.
Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity.
Throughout your life, who were your biggest supporters and valued mentors?
Mentors have appeared at various points in my life and they’ve taken on different roles at each stage of my career. My parents were always very supportive in whatever I wanted to do. One of my high school math teachers was formerly a metallurgical engineer and was very supportive and encouraging of my career choice. When I was doing my post-graduate degree, I had a professor that ultimately ended up recruiting me to work at the University of Melbourne. He’s been a mentor throughout my life in guiding me through career choices.
I’m also very involved with the IEEE. Through my volunteer work I have come across people that have acted as mentors for both my technical role within the organization and also in my life.
How would you describe your experience as a woman in a field that’s been historically male-dominated?
I think there is a sense of camaraderie, but it was a little bit of an eye-opener when I went from academia to working in industry. Some of the older male engineers had never worked with women before, particularly women who were younger than them and perhaps even in a more senior role. But I believe in the academic world there is definitely equal support for both male and female engineering students.
Since you’ve spent a large part of your career in the academic field, did you see your role as a professor as a way to inspire other young minds and the next generation of engineering talent?
Yes definitely. And what I also became aware of is how important it is to have role models and for women engineering students to have a female role model, so that they can see what is possible for them. This really became obvious to me when I was a teacher.
Can you point to any particular instance of how you encouraged your students to pursue a successful career in engineering? Particularly women students?
What I noticed was that the women students naturally gravitated towards me. I think that was because they felt comfortable with me and wanted to have access to me not just for the technical input that I was providing, but also the other type of mentoring I could do for them in terms of encouraging these women to pursue careers in graduate study. I really encouraged them to stay with engineering as a career path, and I take pride in knowing that my students have gone on to successful professions and accomplished many things in their lives.
I was flattered and happy that I could provide that role model figure for my female students. Part of why I am so passionate about STEM outreach is because I know how important those role models are. I also think that having male role models is very important, too. But when young women can see older women that have gone through the educational process and are climbing the career ladder, they can see that it is possible to be successful at it. It goes a long way toward giving them the confidence they need to stick with engineering as a career.
One of the challenges is that the path to an engineering career is like a leaky pipe. We’ve made a lot of progress over the years in introducing more women to STEM, but we still struggle with retention. When these women start their engineering career, they may not necessarily stay on that path. They may move to a different type of work or they may leave engineering all together for whatever reason. This is still something we need to address.
What do you think needs to happen in the future for more women to pursue engineering or STEM careers in general?
Part of it is starting the kids early. There are a lot of engineers that will volunteer to go to schools and talk to women about technology and get them excited about it. There’s a lot more emphasis now at schools in teaching about problem-based learning. It has been successful in getting both boys and girls interested in technology.
I also think that part of it is societal. We need to keep working on allowing young girls to enjoy math and science and not to feel that it’s something they shouldn’t be doing because it’s not a viable career path for them. I think there are a lot of girls that get interested in it, but they may not be supported by their friends, or their families think it’s an odd career choice. Most of the women that choose technical career paths are those that have both parents in the technical field, so they are encouraged more by that.
What are you working on with IEEE?
Within the IEEE I was the president of the Photonics Society, and I started a Women in Photonics initiative there. Part of that group regularly goes out each year on “Introduce Girls to Photonics Day.” In addition to that, I am the chair of the IEEE Technical Activities Board and the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. Part of the role of this community is to think of ways to make diversity and inclusion a cultural aspect in the engineering community.
I’m also asked quite often to give talks about engineering as a career for young women. I did a lot of that when I was a professor. Part of the challenge is to explain to young people what engineering is, because the term is used so loosely and encompasses so many different technical fields.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
There were accomplishments that came with each new thing I did. Early on in my academic career, it was having a paper published in a prestigious journal, for example, or getting a research grant funded.
When I transitioned to industry and I started working for the submarine start-up company, I took a senior role as lead engineer. I presided over many teams that specialized in different disciplines of engineering. I was thrust into having to learn about new technology and get all the design work together, developed and tested. We created a piece of hardware that I was very proud of. Not only myself for learning so many things so quickly, but also my team for accomplishing the project successfully.
I’m also very proud of co-founding my own company with my business partners. We chose a structure where we could be self-funded because at the previous start-up, we ran into problems with venture-backed funding. Like any small business we struggled at first but we’ve become successful and I’m very proud of that. Even now, developing products and interacting with customers who are interested in buying something we designed gives me a sense of satisfaction.
In the last year, we’ve been able to develop a product for the Navy and the Army that we had the opportunity to do flight testing on, and that was something we’d never done before. It was very rewarding to work with the customer and learn something new. Ultimately what it comes down to, is that anytime you accomplish something different you get a sense of satisfaction from it.
What are some words of wisdom you would offer for aspiring young engineers?
One of the most important things is to work hard. Another thing that I found very important in my career is to recognize how many different people you interact with on a daily basis. There are people with all different personalities and agendas and part of being successful in your career is not just having a very solid technical base, but also having the skillset to be able to engage with people who think differently than you do.
Looking back on my early engineering career, I think young people internalize things more than they should. To be successful in any career you’ll have setbacks, but rather than thinking of them as failures, it’s important to take every setback as a learning opportunity.