Jelena Vuckovic, Ph.D., is a professor of electrical engineering and applied physics (by courtesy) at Stanford University, where she leads the Nanoscale and Quantum Photonics Lab.
As a grantee through the Moore Foundation’s Science Program, Jelena is developing a new automated design process that will fundamentally change the way optical devices are designed and fabricated, with the potential for broad impact in the scientific community.
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, she discusses her fascination with physics from a young age. She also shares her thoughts on the benefits of large collaborations in science, and why she believes quantum technologies are on the brink of a breakthrough.
What inspired you to become a scientist/researcher?
Primarily my brother, who is seven years older than me. He loved physics and thought I would like it too, so he taught me a lot ahead of time—even while I was still in elementary school. Thanks to him, electromagnetism became my favorite subject, and this is where most of my research and teaching is today. I was fascinated to learn physics offered logical answers to many questions I had. I also realized I enjoyed the process of asking a question and working hard on figuring out an answer, which is what researchers do every day.
What topics/areas/problems in science are you most interested in solving?
I work in the fields of quantum optics and nanophotonics, which is the study of quantum properties of light (e.g., individual photons) and the interaction of nanometer-scale objects with light. In particular, I’m interested in fundamental studies of light-matter interaction and in applications that harness such interaction, from devices for communications and computing, to biosensing and quantum technologies.
Right now, I am mostly interested in two topics. The first one is related to optics design. Most of the optical/photonic devices we work with today are not optimal, and they belong to a very limited library of known optical structures that we fine tune until we reach desired performances. Large computational power and new optimization algorithms have enabled us to explore the full parameter space of optical devices, and we are now discovering much better structures than what was known and explored so far. These new, non-intuitive designs enable not only new experiments, but also new applications.
The second big question I am interested in is discovering the right platform for quantum technologies. In the field of quantum science and engineering, we are today at the stage where electronics was in the 1940s: we may have discovered the equivalent of a vacuum tube, but certainly not a transistor. And we need to discover the equivalent of a transistor to access many beautiful experiments and applications—from building powerful quantum computers and communication systems, to simulating complex physical systems.
My group started research in this area with semiconductor quantum dots in photonic crystals about 15 years ago, which has enabled us to do many experiments. However, we are now exploring different platforms, such as diamond and silicon carbide, which may be more suitable than quantum dots to build quantum processors.
How do your colleagues, mentors, students and others help you achieve your goals?
I work with a very talented team of graduate students and postdocs in my research group, but also have a network of close collaborators around the world. Experimental research is becoming increasingly complex, and it is impossible to do all of the work within one research group; instead, large collaborations are necessary.
For example, we rely on leading materials growers to provide us with high quality materials for our experiments, and also rely on quantum optics theorists to guide us in our experiments. In addition, some of the biggest breakthroughs these days happen when we merge different disciplines and successfully apply techniques and tools from one field to another: such as combining quantum mechanics with computer science and information theory, or photonics with optimization. To achieve these goals, we have to venture into other fields and to learn from subject matter experts.
What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
My daughters and my research group members: their enthusiasm and motivation are endless. Their constant questioning and asking for explanations and proofs keeps me sharp, but also grounded and humble.
What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist/researcher?
There are many interesting questions to answer and many important problems to work on, but not enough time. I often have to make challenging choices and to prioritize projects for me and for my group members. I also wish I had more time to learn everything I would love to know: new techniques that I could apply to my research, or time to branch into new areas.
Learn more about Jelena’s work, and follow her lab on Instagram.