Interview with Linda Lundström
Linda Lundström was promoted to professor of Applied Physics in July 2021. We met her digitally to talk about her work at KTH before and during the pandemic.
Tell us a few things about your background and education.
I have a Master’s in engineering physics from KTH and I also did my PhD here at KTH. After that, I held a postdoc position in Spain, working on visual optics and the development of myopia. In 2009, I received funding to return to Sweden and decided to go back to KTH based on its close collaboration with the optometry education offered at the Karolinska Institute.
What are the topics that you research?
Visual optics is an interdisciplinary area, in which we as physicists develop theory and build instrumentation that can measure the optical errors of the eye and evaluate their impact on vision by showing different targets on calibrated screens. I am specialized in the peripheral optical errors of the human eye and their effect on our vision.
In my PhD, I worked on helping people that can’t use their central vision (because the macula on the retina is dysfunctional) so they only have their peripheral vision left. We developed measurement technology and tried to improve their peripheral vision by giving them spectacles that were designed for these oblique angles into the eye.
Later on, during my postdoc, I started looking at how these peripheral optical errors can influence whether the eye grows myopic or not. For this purpose, my group here at KTH have built an adaptive optics system that can measure and correct also the more irregular optical errors of the eye in real time. This and other instrumentations are then used to evaluate vision under well controlled optical conditions to evaluate different optical biomarkers that might be used by the young eye to regulate growth.
This research requires ethical approval because we use human subjects. We sometimes measure on colleagues, but we also recruit external subjects for research. We then often ask optometrists or ophthalmologists to hand out information about our research projects to their patients so that they can choose to contact us if they are interested in taking part.
Does your work have applications in the daily life of some people?
As practical implications of this work, we have shown that you can improve peripheral vision with specially designed spectacle correction. That was not considered to be the case earlier. Traditionally, it was thought that it would be the retina setting the limit and that it wouldn’t matter what optical errors you have there; but it does!
Do you communicate your science to people outside academia?
Yes. I am teaching optometry students as well as medical doctors who are about to become ophthalmologists, which gives me the opportunity to communicate my science. I also give popular science talks for the continuous education of optometrists, and sometimes for organizations such as low-vision organizations for patients.
You have been a member of KTH for several years. Can you share with us some positive/negative changes that you have witnessed?
On the positive side, I think that the PhD education has become more aligned in the sense that courses and supervision are shared between different divisions, and the studies are better organised.
On the negative side, I am a bit disappointed to see that the number of females in engineering physics has not risen. When I started as a Master’s student in engineering physics over 20 years ago we were 20% females. Although the number of females has changed significantly in other educations, in engineering physics it remains on the same level. This is problematic for us because the students that are recruited for PhD studies are often recruited from the Engineering Physics program, and it is really a pity that we haven’t gotten those numbers up.
What challenges are you facing with teaching at the moment?
The teaching has changed hugely during the corona time, and the students have different expectations after the pandemic. Many are expecting to be able to do the studies completely from home. Some of them can manage but others do not. The trick is to let them be able to see whether they can manage on their own or not at an early stage. That was difficult even before the pandemic, because the teaching needs to be adapted so that all students on different levels can benefit from it. We aim to help those that are on the borderline of failing the courses, and at the same time inspire those that are more for the higher grades. This requires a lot of work in constructing material that is suitable for everyone and helping the students realize which level they are in so that they can understand how to work with the course.
Another challenge we faced when giving online lectures is demonstrations. In an in-person lecture, we always try to include demonstrations when explaining topics. In several cases, that turned out to be possible to do via zoom by using several cameras and after reworking on the demonstrations to make them more understandable through zoom. However, there were instances when we were not able to provide a demonstration. For instance, it was not possible to demonstrate weak light and its diffraction pattern using a web camera. But I am glad that we at least could give most of the practical labs on campus.
What changes do you expect to see in your field after the pandemic?
For sure there are going to be many more zoom meetings, like this one. I expect that many conferences are going to remain online. Although, there will probably still be some conferences that we travel to. I don’t think that that will disappear because there is a lot of value in meeting people in real life.
As for the research part, the difference is smaller since the main work is conducted in the lab, but we did not recruit any external subjects during the pandemic.
Tell us about an accomplishment in your work that you are proud of.
It is hard to know what accomplishments will be remembered afterwards research-wise. One project that is promising is our work in the design of contact lenses and intraocular lenses to improve peripheral vision. However, this is a long term project that we are doing in collaboration with the industry so it is hard to know how it will develop.
What I am really proud of are the PhD students that have graduated in visual optics at KTH and are now working, because there I can see that I did make a difference.