Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: My expertise is in photonics, optoelectronics, and semiconductor lasers.
Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado in engineering physics and applied math. I did my Master and PhD degrees at the University of Wisconsin in materials science. I did a postdoc at AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey. I then did a second postdoc which turned into a permanent job as a principle member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the fall of 2000 I joined the University of Illinois as a professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Q: You have been at Illinois since 2000. What do you enjoy most about being here?
A: I really enjoy working with students and teaching, both to undergraduate and graduate students.
Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: I became an engineer because I like science and math but I also like to do practical things. I like learning new technology and physics but I also want to be able to apply and do something useful.
Q: How did you become interested in research aspects of your field and what keeps you interested?
A: I don’t know what got me interested in research; I’ve just always been interested. I grew up in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s watching the Apollo missions to the moon for exploration and research. I have always thought about doing research, but if I had to say anything it would be the Apollo missions that got me interested.
What keeps me interested is the opportunity to work with colleagues and graduate students, to get them interested in my research. When we achieve new results it’s very exciting. I’ve had the experience of finding new discoveries and inventing things, and there is nothing like the excitement of discovery, which I now like to share with my students.
Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: In 1994, I was working with my colleagues at Sandia National Labs where we had heard about some interesting research from various labs and we got really excited about the use of selectively oxidized semiconductor materials. In fact the pioneering work was done here at the University of Illinois by Nick Holonyak and his students at the time. So one of the most exciting things that I’m proud of is the discovery and invention of the selectively oxidized vertical cavity surface emitting laser, or “VCSEL” as it is commonly known as. One aspect that I am very proud about is that now 15 years later, these are the lasers that are used in the computer laser mouse. So anyone that uses a laser mouse for their computer uses something that I invented.
Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: What I enjoy most about teaching is when you explain a new concept to a student, then they ask questions, and you can tell by their questions that they are really getting it. I like the accomplishment of transferring a new idea or concept to a student.
Q: What made you want to go into teaching?
A: Again, research and teaching are things that I always wanted to go into. Teaching has been in my family so I’ve been surrounded by teachers my entire life. My Mom was a high school teacher at the high school I graduated from in Colorado. I remember when I was studying as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, I knew that I wanted to be a professor, it’s just that I took a side track for a few years and I had a very good time working in industry and a national laboratory. Eventually I remembered that I wanted to teach, and here I am. Teaching is something I knew I wanted to do.
Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: They play the critical role. The graduate students start in my group, I point them in a direction and tell them what they should do. As they climb the learning curve they become adept at both the craftsmanship of the research that we do as well as the science, the mathematics, and the technology. Eventually toward the end of their studies, they are explaining things to me, because as they progress in their research, they know more about it than I do. I think that’s a very natural process and I think it should be that way to earn your PhD degree.
So the students do the research. There are very few Professors that can do all the other things we must do as well as research, especially experimental research. Professors have to teach courses, grade, work on committees, and of course write research proposals for grants in order to pay for the research. The students at the beginning have to listen to me, trust that I know what I’m doing, and understand that their work will lead to productive results. In the end, their role is to teach me something.
Q: Over the years, you have received several service awards. Which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
A: I have been named to Fellow in a number of professional societies but the award I am most proud of is this past year in 2008 I received the Engineering Achievement Award from the Lasers and Electro Optics Society. The award was given for the invention of the selectively oxidized VCSEL.
Q: What are you focused on today?
A: What are you focused on today? The focus of my research group today is to make better semiconductor lasers. We’re trying to make them even smaller, perform better, and in some cases make them more practical. This is why I am an engineer. I like new science but I want it to be practical, to become a technology. We are currently working on trying to make a nano-cavity laser that can be electrically injected. If we can accomplish this, we can use very tiny lasers in a lot of new applications.
Q: What does the future hold?
A: I am very excited about semiconductor lasers as well as other research involving nano-technology, which is basically very carefully controlling materials at the nanoscale. I think there are a lot of potential device applications that we can consider. I am always very excited about lasers and photonics and I think that there is a lot of exciting research we can do with these devices as well as learn new physics at the same time.
Q: What technology that’s currently under development are you most anxious or excited to see completed?
A: We have been working for several years on what I call photonic crystal VCSEL, which involves taking some of the ideas we’ve learned regarding nano-optics and using them to make better semiconductor lasers. We have been able to make some of the best single mode lasers, by which I mean we can control the laser light emission better than we have before, which in turn opens up new applications such as high speed data transmission. So tomorrow’s internet may use blazing fast VCSELs that we are working on right now.