Ateneo Physics alumna Angeleene Ang: PhD student at ITMO University in Russia and Ben-Gurion University in Israel

Ateneo Physics News

Angeleene “Zemmy” Ang with a 1:1 scale model of Sputnik satellite at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow

by Quirino Sugon Jr

After finishing her BS Physics degree from Ateneo de Manila University in 2015, Angeleene “Zemmy” Ang won first place at the SPIE International Day of Light competition hosted by the Nano-optomechanics Laboratory of ITMO (Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics) University in St. Petersburg, Russia.  She accepted her graduate scholarship prize at the university and finished with a degree in MS in Photonics and Optical Information Technologies, with her thesis “Scattering Forces within a Left-Handed Photonic Crystal.” In 2017 she moved to Israel for her PhD in Optics/PhD in Electrooptical Engineering studies, a joint program of ITMO University with Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She now works on “Tailoring Optical Forces Through Electromagnetic Field Manipulation Using Auxiliary Structures.”

Below is an interview with Zemmy Ang by Ateneo Physics News.

  1. What got you interested you in science? Were you homeschooled?

I first got curious about the world when I was a little kid, watching how fireworks change the color of the night sky. It also really helped that my family had an impressive library with three sets of encyclopedias. I have my late brother to thank for that. One of those encyclopedias was a children’s science set, and I read the entire series. I absolutely loved the volume on space exploration and engineering inventions. I wasn’t homeschooled, though. I went through three private schools. I left the first one Montessori Child Learning Center (now known by a slightly different name)—because of reasons that are still unknown to me. I left my second school—Holy Family School, it’s that one behind Claret School—because I couldn’t fit in with an all-girls crowd. I eventually graduated high school in Saint Claire School in Villa Corrina (it’s now defunct).

In school, I did relatively well in the STEM classes, except for Biology. When it came to choose my major, I knew I wanted to do more science-computer-y stuff.

2. What motivated you to choose BS Physics in AdMU?

I originally wanted to do B.S. Chemistry-ACS, but my parents said that it only leads to a teaching career (which I didn’t want, and still don’t). So I switched it to BS Computer Engineering and got accepted in Ateneo. Halfway through the first semester of the second year, I realized that I was bored and I wanted to do something more. Something relating to whatever those guys in that lab with a placard “Photonics Lab” are working on, that sounded pretty cool. At the time, I was taking a required Physics class, and I honestly enjoyed the topics we were discussing. The class itself, not so much. So I switched majors. And then I found out that the supervisor of the Photonics lab was going on a 3-year sabbatical leave, thus closing the research lab to me and everyone in my batch. I looked for something else. I heard someone else was doing Optics/Photonics research, but what he did was more on the theoretical side. I went to the guy.

3. What research did you do in your undergraduate thesis?

I first did research on skew ray tracing within optical fibers using Geometric Algebra with Dr. Quirino Sugon Jr. This was mostly a demonstration of the flexibility and ease-of-use of Geometric Algebra more than anything else; a ray tracing simulation program could have done the same thing I worked on in a matter of seconds, and it would have been a one-day assignment, not publishable research. I finished it towards the end of my 3rd year and we wrote it as a journal article. It got published in Applied Optics.

With my adviser’s blessing, I begged a legend, Dr. Jerrold “Doc J” Garcia, to come out of his partial retirement and become my second supervisor. That took a while, but after some months later, he agreed. With him, I studied the effect of the higher-order multipole moments on the planetary orbits, basically an extension to the Kepler problem. I don’t know of any articles that study this particular topic, so I think it might be worth a paper, but I haven’t had the time to do a proper extensive literature review and re-write the manuscript. I may even need to re-do some of the simulations, which were all written in Fortran 90, because the original rendered animations were low-quality (I only had access to a low-end Intel Atom netbook at the time, and it could only run so much). It also doesn’t help that Doc J seems to have vanished nearly completely and I don’t know anyone else who can help me with the paper, or even where to submit it.

4. How did you end up taking your graduate studies in Russia?

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The main building of ITMO University in Russia

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Right outside the main building where I worked at 10:30 pm

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Waddling around in knee-deep snow is actually fun when you get used to it, as opposed to waddling in knee-deep floodwaters

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Peterhof tour during the Days of Diffraction 2016 conference

 

Everyone I meet asks me how and why I ended up studying in Russia, of all places. My usual response: “My undergrad adviser suggested that I apply in Russia. He’s insane.” And it’s true – anyone who knew Doc J or ever became his student would know how much he likes texts from Russian physicists like Vladimir Arnold or Lev Landau.

I sent out a bunch of inquiry letters everywhere, there were a few that sent back responses, but one got my attention. This particular department had a International Day of Light competition, and the first place was a full scholarship plus a certain amount of money. I applied, and won first place, so I ended up going to ITMO University (National Research University of Information Technology, Mechanics, and Optics) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

I did research on optical forces and radiation pressure from structured materials in the Nano-Optomechanics Laboratory headed by Dr. Alexander Shalin, with the help of a collaborator, Dr. Sergey Sukhov, who was working at the University of Central Florida. It got published in Sci Rep.

5. How’s the Russian winter? How’s food and travel?

Acclimation to weather is a thing. It’s a shock at first, but you get used to it. The nice thing with cold weather is that you can just keep adding layers and it’ll work, as opposed to warm weather, because you can’t peel your skin off. On the flip side, the long summer days (only 2-3 hours of darkness) are absolutely gorgeous. Walking along the riverbanks at 10pm with the sun still in your face is lovely.

I went to Moscow for a weekend to see a concert of my favorite Japanese metal band. I took the high-speed train and it was awesome: 400 kms in 4 hours. I also saw the important sites there – Red Square, the department store GUM, the Cosmonautics Museum, the hill overlooking Moscow State University, the largest shopping mall in Europe (I enjoy big shopping malls very much), among other things.

I also took advantage of every single student discount I can find. The Hermitage Museum is free for all students of all nationalities; the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and the Cruiser Aurora museum has half off the entrance fee for Russia/CIS students. Some conferences I attended had city tours built in the program. I also went to see Vyborg – a little town in between St. Petersburg and the Finland border – on a day trip. They had old castles, it was pretty cool.

The food is okay. If you like dill, that is. They put it on literally everything. I enjoy these thin Russian pancakes with various fillings, it’s called blin. They have a local fast food chain called Teremok that serves variations of blin, and I make it a point to bring any Filipino I meet in Russia to that food chain. It’s like their Jollibee. They also have these boiled dumplings called pelmeni. It’s the Russian student food, kinda like how Americans have instant ramen. Borsch is fantastic, too.

As for vodka, it’s not my thing. They like it neat and it smells like rubbing alcohol and/or diesel. Caviar tastes like arosep with too much salt. That’s just me, though.

6. Why did you move from Russia to Israel for your PhD studies?

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Be’er Sheva is not as picturesque as St. Petersburg, but they have a lot of cats, which makes me very happy. This was taken at the university, at the bust of David Ben-Gurion.

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The university/city mascot is a camel. Go figure. It’s the desert. This one wears headphones.

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My poster and I at a conference at the Weizmann Institute

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We also did a little educational event at Lehavim – a village not far from Be’er Sheva. The lady presenting is my supervisor; the guy assisting is a PhD student in the group. I was taking photos.

 

Every Israeli I meet ask me how and why I ended up studying in Israel, of all places. My usual response: “We knew someone who knew someone who was looking for PhD students.” I had enough of the language barrier and wanted to go to an English-speaking country – that was my main issue when looking for a PhD program. Plus, being in a new environment, with their own culture and cuisine, is always a fun learning experience. My supervisor suggested Israel. I saw an opportunity to go there (specifically, in Tel Aviv University) for a Winter School, so I got to check the place out a bit. It was a nice bonus that the country had a decent-sized overseas Filipino worker population.

When I was there, I met up with a research group who we knew was looking for students, in Be’er Sheva. They seemed like nice people, so I applied for the PhD program under the group of Dr. Alina Karabchevsky. Now, I’m currently a student in Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

I’m working on an extension of my previous work on optical forces. My first project there was an continuation of something I was already working on immediately after I graduated at ITMO: a study of optical forces using the photonic hook effect from a dielectric cuboid. We were planning to submit to PRB, but stuff happened, discussions were made, and it got published in Sci Rep. I personally think that that particular research was at a dead end due to the results I obtained, so I moved on to a different topic: trapping cold atoms using structured waveguides. We have a proof of concept result and the paper is in progress.

7. How’s Israel?

Fun fact: Israel has the largest percentage of Russian speakers outside of the former Soviet Union[cite]. Sometimes, it feels like I never left Russia.

The food here is awesome. I (figuratively) cannot stop eating falafel. Hummus and shakshuka are also great. I’ve also had some traditional Jewish food like jachnun (tastes fantastic, horrible for your health), gefilte fish, kneidel, and more than five variations of cholent. There’s a great chicken schnitzel place behind the university which makes up for the lack of Subway and KFC in the country. The only disappointment is that due to kosher laws, things like pork, shrimp, and authentic foreign food are either prohibitively expensive or hard to find. The Arabs make great desserts, though.

I mentioned earlier that I went to Tel Aviv for a winter school. I did some research beforehand, but there was an important bit I forgot to search. Apparently, these guys take “thou shall keep the sabbath day holy” very seriously. I landed in the middle of Shabbat (friday evening to saturday evening) – meaning no public transportation, some shops and restaurants were closed, etc. There are more English-speaking locals and foreigners from English-speaking countries here than in Russia. Definitely a culture shock for me.

I’ve been to most areas of Jerusalem’s Old City, Caesarea, the Dead Sea, dropped by Nazareth twice, and went swimming at the Kineret/Sea of Galilee (which, fyi, is actually a shrinking lake). We also went stargazing in the central Negev desert (in a town near the Ramon crater), ran around the touristy areas of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, went boating around the port of Acre/Akko, took the cable car at Rosh Hanikra, walked around a moshav in the Galilee area, went down the steps of the Ba’hai gardens. I’ve also visited the Weizmann Institute for a conference. It’s a nice place. I haven’t been to the disputed areas: Bethlehem or East Jerusalem, mostly because I’m waiting for the University to organize a tour.

There was one rocket strike in Be’er Sheva literally 5 minutes before I left to go to the airport for a trip, another one that hit a house very recently (no casualties), and at least one incendiary balloons from Gaza. The city and the country are well-prepared and to deal with these kinds of incidents, so it’s very safe. Besides that, nothing much happens, just the usual “I’m bored and there’s nothing to do because shabbat laws.”

Also, one of my colleagues (another foreign student, a native Russian) mentioned that, in the train, he once saw a young woman in civilian clothes, armed with an assault rifle, and she was knitting. Perfectly normal.

For those unaware, Filipino citizens are allowed to travel to Israel, visa-free.

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The fourth station of the Via Dolorosa at the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. My impromptu guide was a Jewish guy reading stuff off Wikipedia.

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We arrived at Jerusalem and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on that one historic day where they closed down for non-religious reasons. We left the day after. The next day, they settled the issue and opened again.

8. What are your future plans? 

Nothing specific yet, but I know I don’t want to stay in the academe. I’m already tired of long-term travel; it sounds fun at first, but it’s mostly a pain. I want stability – mostly financial, but I also want a stable community of friends, I want consistent health care, and I want to get back to my old hobbies. Most of these things are impossible with a semi-nomadic lifestyle, despite the internet being a thing. Almost all of my life had to be put on hold when I left for Russia.

Another big thing I noticed for academics is that those who are particularly outgoing, talkative, and extroverted are those who get grants and collaborations. I don’t fit in within that kind of environment.

9. Any parting thoughts, especially to Physics majors who may wish to follow your path?

Don’t get so picky. Does the fact that I had a publication in my undergrad look impressive? Well, ICTP and a few other universities I applied to for my Masters didn’t. That’s why I applied to somewhere unusual, and it worked out, and it kept working out. Having a goal is important, but sometimes, it doesn’t go the way that’s planned. Being flexible and learning to adapt are both good skills to have.

You might also think that since you’re in a scientific field and people mostly publish in English language journals, then it would follow that most scientists around the world would speak fluent English. That is very wrong. I overhear scientific discussions in Modern Hebrew, the revived language of the Old Testament, on a regular basis. Learn a language – Russian, German, Mandarin, whatever. It helps.

Also, learn how to proofread for technical English. It’s surprising how all my English grammar classes ended up becoming very useful out here.

I’m easy to find on the internet. Feel free to say hello.

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At the Lebanon border up north, near Rosh Hanikra. My cousin took a me and some of her friends up there on a day trip.

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