Silicon nanophotonics pioneer Vlasov joins ECE ILLINOIS faculty

5/2/2016 Lauren D. Quinn

Illinois research to focus on integrated optical devices and brain-inspired computer architectures.

Written by Lauren D. Quinn

After 15 years at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in New York, Yurii A Vlasov has accepted a tenured position as the Founder Professor of Engineering in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Bioengineering. He is also affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory. He is ECE’s first Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative (GEBI) faculty hire.

Vlasov is one of the pioneers of silicon nanophotonics. He is highly regarded for his work at IBM, developing technology that greatly reduces the energy and cost required to transmit large amounts of data between chips. Although he was originally a fundamental scientist, he accepted the challenge of bringing the technology through to commercial release—directing research and development, leading technology qualification at the foundry, as well as business development.

“There is a great deal of satisfaction in that, because now it is affecting the world. It will have a strong impact on real-world applications, like optical communications in data centers and supercomputers” Vlasov says.

Once that mission was accomplished, Vlasov was ready for a new challenge. Wanting to return to his scientific roots, he did something that well established professionals rarely do—he sought out a brand new field of study in the area of brain-inspired computing architectures.  
“It is amazing how little we know of the most complex object of all--our own brain--and how profound the impact of gaining even a little knowledge of its functionality on the future of computing systems,” says Vlasov.

To learn the frontiers of brain research, he spent a year at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus soaking up everything he could learn about experimental neuroscience.

“Everyone said, ‘You have such a stellar career in photonics, why are you doing this?’ The jump was a bit drastic. But I want to start something new from scratch, to once again be a founder of a new field that can have strong practical impact,” Vlasov explains.

Vlasov has established two laboratories at U of I. The first is in integrated optical devices, something traditional for him, but now with additional focus on biomedical applications; for example, intelligent biosensors.  

The second lab will be related to experimental systems neuroscience. Vlasov wants to further develop engineering tools to better understand the microcircuits in the brain and how they are responsible for behavior.

“The overarching theme is applying engineering solutions to the life sciences,“ Vlasov says.

The Grainger Initiative, designed to attract and provide opportunities to prominent faculty, allowed Vlasov the opportunity to pursue his new interest,

Vlasov is eager to develop collaborations across the departments he is affiliated with, and to stock his labs with talented postdocs and graduate students who are, like him, willing to pursue a bold interdisciplinary research agenda with a promising real-world impact.

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This story was published May 2, 2016.