Making the internet light on its feet

Research lives: Dr Fatima Gunning, senior staff researcher at Tyndall National Institute and UCC Department of Physics

Dr Fatima Gunning: “When I was growing up in Brazil, my older brother was always showing me how to make things.”

Dr Fatima Gunning: “When I was growing up in Brazil, my older brother was always showing me how to make things.”


What research do you do?

I work with optical fibre communications, which is the infrastructure that allows you to connect to the internet on your phone or computer or TV. I am using light to make the data run more efficiently and flexibly in the network.

How are you using light to make the internet work better?

I am developing ways of using lots of different wavelengths or colours and shades of light to encode information that is being sent along these cables, and we do this in a clever way, with techniques borrowed from wireless, so we can have the option to be able to transfer lots of data in the same infrastructure if needed.

How will this technology help the internet in practice?

It will allow for lots more flexibility and reliability and more efficient use of energy. There is a lot demand for the internet around the clock – it’s not just people using their phones or computers, it’s also smart devices that are connecting online to send and receive information. This kind of everyday use is usually the “mouse” data. But then let’s say the World Cup final is on – I am from Brazil so this is an example I really like – then millions and millions of people are watching this online simultaneously, with high definition, and they are on social media in real time.

This is a form of “elephant” data, where you have lots more traffic and the optical cables and network need to be able to deliver. I am coming up with ways to get the information through the optical fibres so that we can cope with these surges of elephant data but we can also turn down the dial on energy usage in the network when it’s just dealing with the mouse data.

What inspired you to become interested in physics?

When I was growing up in Brazil, my older brother was always showing me how to make things. He had a programmable calculator and he gave me the manual and said figure it out, which I did, but I had to learn enough English first to be able to write the programs! Also, the headphone cable on my Walkman was always breaking so he taught me to solder it back together. Those kinds of things got me interested in the technical side of things. My brother studied engineering and I decided to study physics.

And now you are helping other young women in physics – tell us more?

I currently chair the Empowering Women @Tyndall Committee. There are so few women in physics and sometimes you can be a bit invisible so we set up this committee to run training initiatives and bring in speakers and role models and to raise awareness about the need to have women represented at all levels. We recently won the Frank McGrath Perpetual Award for Equality and Welfare at the 2017 UCC Staff Recognition Awards, so we were very happy that our efforts were recognised.

How do you spend your time when you are not making the internet work better and empowering women in physics?

I have two kids, so they keep me busy! When they go to bed, I really enjoy reading, as does my husband. I love reading fiction, that’s a bit of escapism maybe, and I also read quite a bit about equality issues as that’s a big interest of mine.