Coleman retiring after distinguished career


Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Throughout the year, prospective Illinois students descend the basement steps of Everitt Laboratory with a tour guide at the lead. They’ve seen the buildings surrounding the main quad. They’ve been through the Illini Union and the libraries. Now, they are standing before the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the Integrated Circuits Fabrication Laboratory, and inside, undergraduates garbed with white, hooded cleanroom suits are creating silicon wafers and bipolar transistors. This laboratory, for those looking in and for those working inside, is an indelible campus landmark. 


Now, after a thirty-one-year career at the university, Professor James Coleman, the long-time course director of the Fab Lab, as students call it, has announced he will be retiring at the end of this month. This course is only a small part of Coleman’s role in the department, where he is the Intel Alumni Endowed Chair of Electrical and computer Engineering, but under his oversight, the Fab Lab has become recognized as one of the premier classes of its kind. When he was given the course as a new faculty member in 1982, “I knew that I’d hit the jackpot,” he said. “It’s a fun class. I love the material. I loved the students in there.” 


James J. Coleman
James J. Coleman
Coleman, himself, received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the department. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I think it is important,” he said of the undergraduate research. “As an undergraduate, I had no idea what was going on in the research labs.” So, both in the classroom and in his own research laboratory, Coleman has always encouraged hands-on participation. Not only does it provide valuable experience, but it also opens up potential career paths. 


Coleman completed his doctorate in 1975, working with Professor Nick Holonyak, Jr on alloys for visible lasers. After graduating, he went to Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where for almost three years, he continued that work and developed high-performance lasers that were used in early fiber-optic telecommunications. He then moved to Rockwell International, where he worked for about four years, creating a new laser structure, which found applications in compact disk players, optical storage, and medicine. Then, in 1982, he joined the faculty at Illinois. 


Less than a decade after his return, Coleman and his team of researchers had a major breakthrough, demonstrating that reliable semiconductor lasers could be produced with a strained-layer heterostructure (using two seemingly incompatible alloys). Then an unconventional approach, strained-layer lasers are now ubiquitous in the amplification of telecommunication signals. “If you ever were on the Internet or talked on a cellphone, you probably talked through an optical amplifier without knowing it,” Coleman said. 


Behind-the-scenes technology breakthroughs like the strained-layer pump laser are easily taken for granted. To use a cellphone, general users never have to consider how the fiber-optic network transfers the information between cellphone towers and Internet servers; it just works. Audio and visual data is accessed with ease, and while the technology, as a whole, is reliant upon countless stepwise contributions, the strained-layer pump laser was a long leap in that development. 


“Enough time has gone past that its impact is more clear. You know, when you work on something, you don’t always find out right away what is going to have impact,” Coleman said. “That is part of the entertainment.” 


Recently, Coleman and his students have been studying semiconductor nanostructures, including quantum dots and nanopores, which could be used in improved lasers, and, in the long run, might be used in ultra-secure telecommunications. His team has also been working on third-generation photovoltaic cells, which could increase the efficiency of solar power generation, and on high-brightness lasers. “It’s kind of the yin and the yang of research versus development,” he said The photovoltaic cells and high-brightness lasers have immediate applications and are exciting for students to develop, but he tries to keep pushing on other ideas, like the nanostructures, which stretch existing equipment and scientific understanding to their limits. 


After retiring from Illinois, Coleman will continue his research at the University of Texas in Dallas where he has been appointed the department head of electrical engineering. But there is little doubt that he will continue to work with colleagues at Illinois. “The beauty of Illinois is that there is going to be an expert for whatever it is you can’t figure out, somewhere nearby—in our department or other departments. And I like working with bright people, so collaborating is easy.” 


This appreciation of his colleagues is evident in his mentorship of young faculty members. At least three weeks a month, Coleman would invite the young members of the microelectronic and photonics faculty, about six in all, to an open discussion at a small conference table in one of his labs. “It was just a natural process,” said Assistant Professor Lynford L Goddard. “He wanted to make sure that the people that Illinois hired would be successful.” Topics ranged from advanced-level research advice, to tenure-track planning, to classroom suggestions and equipment acquisitions. 


Coleman also circulated research opportunities among the members, and Goddard credits Coleman for passing along an email from Intel that eventually resulted in a $2-million project funded by the National Science Foundation, which Goddard and Assistant Professor Gabriel Popescu are currently investigating. “You can imagine that faculty get tons of emails from companies and could just delete them,” Goddard said, “But he forwarded it along, helped make the connection for us, and looked over parts of our proposal before we sent it out.”


Coleman has recently served as the president of the IEEE Photonics Society. For three years, he was the vice president of publications for the society, and he spent another nine as an associate editor, managing the peer-review process for articles published in his technical area. He also served as the faculty coordinator for the ECE Alumni Board of Directors since 2004 and had been an assistant coordinator for seven years before that. 


Among the many honors earned throughout his career, Coleman received the John Tyndall Award, the highest recognition accorded to researchers in optical communications, from The Optical Society (OSA) and the IEEE Photonics Society in 2013. He was also elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering in 2012, and in the same year, he became a fellow in the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE). 


From the IEEE Photonics Society, Coleman has also received the Distinguished Service Award in 2008, the William Streifer Scientific Achievement Award in 2000, the Distinguished Lecturers Award in 1997 and 1998. He received the Technology Achievement Award from SPIE in 2011 and the David Sarnoff Award from IEEE in 2008. 


While Coleman was the course director of the Fabrication Laboratory, the course moved twice, first between two lab spaces on the first floor of Everitt, and then to its current location in the basement. When it moved the second time, Coleman and others realized that they had a unique opportunity to make the classroom more visible. “We spent some money to chop out solid doors and put glass doors and things so that people could have a look inside,” he said. “It’s amazing to see.” 


Under his leadership, Intel donated an entire fabrication line to the course. This grant, worth over $1 million, was assured by alumnus and Intel executive Mark Bohr (MSEE ‘78). Now, as the base of ECE prepares to move to the new building, currently under construction, it was Coleman, again, who led the effort to ensure that more equipment would be provided such that, instead of moving the Fab Lab, a second space would be built in the new building. “We’re probably going to…expand and do something parallel in the new ECE building, sort of bridge generations that way,” Coleman said.


In the meantime, it is not hard to imagine: a prospective student, standing in front of the Fab Lab windows, pulls out a cellphone to take a picture of an undergraduate working near the dual-stacked furnace, wearing a full, white cleanroom outfit. The photo is texted to a friend, and, in doing so, an image of Coleman’s iconic laboratory is communicated through the network using his strained-layer pump lasers.