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Shun Lien Chuang

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July 6, 2010

Shun Lien Chuang
Shun Lien Chuang

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: I conduct research on semiconductor optics and photonics, so mostly semiconductors, quantum well lasers, quantum dot lasers. I develop theories for the band structures and optical properties of semiconductor quantum devices with my students, and a few of them fabricate the devices such as quantum-dot lasers and optical amplifiers, and measured their electrical and optical performances.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I got my undergraduate degree from National Taiwan University. Later I went to MIT in 1978 where I finished my master’s and my PhD degrees. My master’s was in 1980 and my doctorate was in 1983. I spent half a year at a company called Schlumberger Research doing research in Connecticut. Then I came to Illinois in 1983 as an assistant professor. During the past years I have taken some sabbaticals. I spent one semester at AT&T Bell Labs and a semester at the University of Tokyo. Another sabbatical at Cambridge University in the 2002, and most recently I visited the Technical University of Berlin in 2009. Every seven years at Illinois you get a sabbatical, and you can go and study with some of the best researchers in the world.

Q: You have been at Illinois since 1983. What do you enjoy most about being here?
A: It’s good to be a professor here. I enjoy teaching and working with students. I conduct research on photonics and optoelectronics with my graduate research assistants. Much of the research results we publish in journals and present in conferences. I could also propose new courses and introduce new research results to our students. There is a lot of interaction with undergraduate, graduate students, and visitors including seminar speakers to exchange ideas.

Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: Actually, I liked physics first. In Taiwan you have to take a national entrance exam, and I selected electrical engineering because that was the application of a lot of physics to engineering devices. I liked mathematics and I liked physics, and this was a pretty straightforward choice. My research is more of a combination of physics and engineering.

Q: How did you become interested in researching your field, and what keeps you interested?
A: Since I came here in ’83, Illinois has been leading in the quantum electronics area and the semiconductor physics area. You have a lot of pioneering professors in these areas. As an assistant professor, I came here and learned a lot of new stuff in the field. To me, this is a very dynamic place for faculty and for students to come to learn.

Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: My earlier research has been on the theory for strained quantum well devices. The theories we developed were published in the late ’80s and in the early ’90s. Some of them became very useful in the design for quantum well lasers. Actually, some of the results became the basis for my textbook which I published in ’95. Last year, I revised it, so now it’s in its second edition. It’s a very useful book for undergraduates and graduate students. It’s used by a lot of schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Illinois, and UC Berkeley. It’s one of the more common texts in this field.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: I enjoy teaching very much. I’ve taught both undergraduate and graduate courses. Many of the students I teach are considering research in electromagnetics or optical devices, and they like my class because they find out many of the topics I cover are linked to their research. The response you get from the students this way is great.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: Students play a very important role in our research. Professors—we we write proposals, propose ideas, get funding, support our graduate students. But it’s our students that are doing so much of the research and developing new ideas or theories or experimental techniques. It’s because of them that we’ve been able to produce a lot of new results. It’s a very important role in our research.

Q: Over the years, you have received several service awards. Which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
A: You’re always lucky to receive awards. Every award has a special meaning. But, right now, I have the Humboldt Research Award which is given to a senior U.S. Scientist. What’s special about this award is that it allows me to visit the Technical University of Berlin and spend some time there and conduct new research. The host professor I’m visiting, Dieter Bimberg, is one of the leading experts in the field of nanophotonics. He has a big group and excellent facilities when it comes to quantum dot lasers and other important topics such as single photon sources. The award allows for multiple visits. It’s a great award that bolsters the exchange of ideas and research collaboration.

Q: What does the future hold?
A: Photonics is a very interesting field to be involved in. We are all looking into the future of higher speed optical communications, better photonic devices, more energy efficient devices and a whole list of other things are going into nanoscale. The future requires a lot of intensive research, but intellectually it’s good for students and professors. You will need to know quantum mechanics, solid state physics, photonic physics. I think it’s a good field for education and good field for industry.

Q: What technology that’s currently under development are you most anxious or excited to see completed?
A: Right now we are working on a plasmonic nano laser. It’s an exciting field that’s very challenging because it requires us to take optical devices and make them smaller and smaller to the nano scale. You can put all sorts of transistors and semiconductors into electronic devices and compress them. But, the question is can you compress optical devices the same way you compress electronic devices into a chip? It’s challenging, but this is what the future of research will involve. 

Q: What else do you hope to accomplish with your research?
A: The future is always unpredictable, so it’s really hard to say! We look at what is intellectually challenging, what are the major problems to be solved in our field. We just try to solve some of these problems—how to make the most efficient photonic devices; how to improve optical data communication technologies—and just take each challenge as it comes.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at or (217) 244-6376.

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