Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: I've been working in the area of lasers, optics, and plasmas for almost 40 years. In the laser area, my lab and I have been pursuing and discovering new types of lasers and their applications in a wide range of areas, including biomedical sensors. We develop new types of lasers that produce light in different regions of the spectrum. These lasers either have not existed at all in the past, or the previous versions were not practical.
Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I did my undergraduate work at the University of Maryland. I came here as a graduate student in January 1972, and completed my PhD studies in late 1975. I went from here to the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, where I was a postdoctoral associate. Then after a year, I joined the scientific research staff. I was what was called a laser physicist in the Optical Sciences Division. Then, I unexpectedly received an offer from Illinois in 1979 and joined the faculty in August of that year.
Q: You have been at Illinois since 1979. What do you enjoy most about being here?
A: That's an easy one. It's the people. Really incredible students. The faculty are incredible--I just don't know what other word to say. And it’s not just their expertise, but the spirit that exists here. Everybody is just really nice, cordial, and I've never gone to a faculty colleague's office with an idea that I was excited about and was turned away. Always it’s, “Sure, let’s work on this.” But it’s the people, it’s always the people. That's what makes it a great place.
Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: When I was 11 or 12, a friend introduced me to amateur radio. This friend took me to his home, and his dad was on the air, and he was talking live to somebody in Europe. Today that's not a big deal because of satellites and such, but in 1961 or 1962, that was a huge deal. To hear the voice of someone in France and realize that I could get a radio and do the same thing—I was completely hooked. But the neat thing about it was that hobby introduced me to circuits and amplifiers and all these things, including antennas, that electrical engineers love.
Q: How did you become interested in research aspects of your field and what keeps you interested?
A: When I came to Illinois I was thinking of working in several areas and had a number of possibilities open to me. It boggled my mind what the possibilities were. I ended up working for two faculty members who are retired now, and I was attracted by their enthusiasm for what they were doing. And I must admit I knew nothing about a laser. I chose the field because of their personalities, their drive, their enthusiasm, and it was a wonderful choice. I've always been grateful that I went in that direction.
And the field is incredibly fascinating. The research problems that I work on deal with the physics of atoms and molecules and how they absorb or generate light. They are able to either receive it or produce it. It turns out that the underlying physics of how that works is fascinating, and never grows old. Every day is different and brings new challenges. What we’re doing today is completely different from what I and my students were working on 30 years ago.
Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: There's a lot of them, but not so much what I have done, but what my students have accomplished. One example is that we have developed a class of microscopic light emitters called micro-plasmas. We’ve been able to introduce a new type of lighting that is flat and thin, and it’s based on micro-plasmas which are about the size of one of the hairs on your head. We refer to these new lamps as lighting tiles and, in 2007, my partner Sung-Jin Park and I started a company that is located in northwest Champaign. This company is manufacturing lamps that are thin and flat and are currently as large as 12 inches square. They're extremely bright, and there's never been a lamp like them. The lighting over our heads is in the form of tubes, and for as long as any of us can remember lights have been in the shape of bulbs or tubes, but light tiles are flat and they produce what the lighting industry calls “soft light”. I would say that this new lighting technology is something I'm especially proud of because it’s a beautiful example of how fundamental research can lead to a product that improves the lives of people.
Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: Again, it’s the people, the interactions with people, and seeing young men and women change. When students arrive here as freshmen, they're wide-eyed, and their view of the technological world is understandably limited. But when they leave four years later, they're completely different people. The way they think has changed, and it’s truly a privilege to watch that happen. I mentor students, and I often see them from the day they come in the door, having graduated from high school three months earlier, until the day they graduate and go off to a job. It's an exciting process, because we're about changing lives. It's about teaching them to be able to teach themselves, because technology is changing so rapidly that aside from the real fundamentals most everything else will change.
Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: They’re the ones who do it. I'm more of an administrator. So, if it weren't for the students, nothing would get done. In my lab, it’s important to have individuals covering the full spectrum of experience so we even have high school students from time to time. The graduate students are, of course, pursuing research so they can earn an MS or PhD, and the undergrads bring an enthusiasm that I think is so important. They bring what I call a "gee-whiz" mentality, like, “Wow, I didn't know that was possible.” To undergrads research is new to them, and their involvement in the lab brings a level of excitement that’s fun to have.
Q: Over the years, you have received several service awards. Which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
A: I'd say the Mees Medal I received from The Optical Society of America. The reason is that the award has to do with international contributions to optics and demonstrating that optics transcends all boundaries. It’s really focused on the fact that research is done on an international scale, and it’s not just conducted here in America or in France, for example, but it really requires the combined efforts of us all.
Q: What are you focused on today?
A: I'm focused on both new laser applications and the microplasma work. We’ve gone on to use microplasmas for a number of other purposes, in addition to lighting. One is to produce ozone for disinfecting water. The National Academy of Engineering has identified the availability of clean water as one of the great challenges of our time. So what we've succeeded in doing is building small microplasma-based generators that produce ozone very efficiently and in a package that’s about ninety-nine percent smaller than existing technology. These reactors are literally made from aluminum foil. Most of the water in the United States is today disinfected by chlorine and the problem with chlorination is that it’s not nearly as effective as ozone in killing bugs in the water that can make us all ill. The other problem with chlorine is that once it’s in the water, it’s in the water. Because it stays in the water and interacts with plants and fish in the sea, it poses a real environmental problem. But ozone is about three thousand times more effective than chlorine against organisms like E. coli. We are in the process of commercializing that technology.
Q: What does the future hold?
A: I think in our century we're going to be interested in number of important areas, one of which is keeping our air and water clean. Countries all over the world are very concerned, I think justifiably so, about the availability of clean water. That's why we've identified that as an area of priority. We think that this technology can make a difference and we're working with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) here on campus to take ozone-generating systems to Africa and Central America. I'm excited about that because now we can work with a number of terrific undergraduates who are in EWB. Of course, we're all concerned about clean energy because for a modern, healthy standard of living, all of us need clean water and power. I think these areas are extremely important. We're beginning to also apply microplasma technology to purifying air as well as water.
Q: What else do you hope to accomplish with your research?
A: I think it's a dream of all engineers: it is our hope to improve the way people live. What makes us thrive is a problem or a solution that allows us to change life for the better. My lab has done a lot of basic experiments in physics and optics over the years, but what makes us more excited are those things I've described, because we see a window for improving life. Even if you can have a small impact, that's amazing. I mentioned water earlier--if we can save the life of one child somewhere around the world because he or she is not drinking dirty water, that makes my whole career worth it. So it’s the same thing with purifying air--removing substances from the air that are a real problem for people who have compromised respiratory systems.