Aim High And No One Can Stop You
Patryk Urban serves as the IEEE Photonics Poland Chairman and is an IEEE Photonics Globalization and IEEE Photonics Industry Engagement Committee Member.
Today we interview Prof. Ioannis Tomkos from University of Patras, Greece, Fellow of IEEE, OSA and IET.
Patryk: How did you enter the field of Photonics and Optical Communications?
Ioannis: Even before I started my undergraduate studies in the field of Applied Physics at University of Patras, I knew that I wanted to focus on telecommunications (influenced by my dad who was an engineer working for the largest telecoms company in Greece). While pursuing my B.Sc. diploma thesis on electronic A/D and D/A converters in 1994, my advisor Prof. Th. Deliyannis (a prominent member of the global electronics research community) recommended to me to perform my graduate studies in the field of photonics (as the successor of electronics in the technology chain, in his opinion) and optical communications as a key application field (about which I knew nothing). He introduced me to Prof. C. Caroubalos at University of Athens, who was among the first who researched the field in Greece and had a well-funded group focusing on novel telecoms lasers and coherent optical systems. I enrolled at the M.Sc. program he was directing, and soon after I became a member of his team that included two other Professors: Prof. Th. Sphicopoulos and Prof. D. Syvridis, who later became my Ph.D. thesis co-advisors on the then hot topic of optical signal processing. During my Ph.D. thesis studies I managed to receive a couple of international awards from major organizations like SPIE and IEEE and as a result I was invited for interviews in the USA by leading companies (e.g., AT&T, Bell Labs, Bellcore and Corning) in the field of optical communications. Eventually I joined Corning Inc. (the company that invented the low-loss optical fibers and made many other innovations in the field) and experienced the tremendous growth of the field during the turn of the millennium.
Patryk: What have you worked on in the past and recently? What are your biggest achievements so far?
Ioannis: When I joined the “Photonics Research and Test Center” of Corning Inc. at Somerset, New Jersey, I worked on transparent optical networks for deployments in metropolitan areas and transcontinental networks. My main focus was on the design and demonstration of novel optical node switching architectures.
Since the end of 2002 when I came back to Greece, I worked on virtually all topics that relate with the application of photonics for optical communication systems and networks, spanning all networks segments (from backbone networks to access networks and intra-datacenter networks) and all network layers (from the physical infrastructure to the transport network and the network control/management layers). One can say that most notable are my contributions in physical-layer-aware optical networks, passive optical networks for broadband access, spatially/spectrally flexible optical networking and wireless-optical communications convergence on the way to 6G networks. For the resulting achievements, I was fortunate to be awarded by IEEE and OSA, among others, and offered various positions from which I hope that I have managed to further the science of light and the telecoms engineering profession.
It is interesting that after over 25 years since I started my research activities, I am now back to square one, and I work again on A/D and D/A converters (only this time based on all-optical designs that pave the way for efficient photonic interconnects scaling beyond 800Gbps for applications in datacenters and 5G fronthaul links). Life certainly takes interesting turns when you work on such exciting and rapidly changing topics!
More details on my past and on-going activities can be found at the Linkedin profile (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-ioannis-tomkos-086b102).
Patryk: What excites you most and keeps you motivated to further contribute to this field?
Ioannis: The field of photonics has many different possible applications. There are new topics that emerge in optical communications, but there are also other areas that attract traditionally great interest (e.g., sensing) and also others that are emerging (e.g., quantum computing) that rely heavily on photonics. With the technology evolution and advancements to areas like fabrication of photonic integrated circuits with very well controlled characteristics, we will soon witness many new applications of the technology which will become part of our daily life. Being part of an ecosystem that improves our quality of life in the real world is certainly what excites me the most.
Patryk: What are the main obstacles you and your peers experience when hunting for proper candidates? What do your graduates usually need to face when searching for a new job opportunity?
Ioannis: The hunt for talent is what all my peers are dedicating a big part of their time. For sure the original ideas need to be worked out by young students and researchers who are eager to learn and leave their own lasting footprint on our society. I have come to learn that only teamwork can realize an avalanche of positive outcomes, especially in the highly competitive and rapidly changing environment that we live and work in.
The graduates that look for a new career opportunity need to have a solid theoretical background in science or engineering, hands-on experience through internships and understanding of how companies operate. Soft skills and knowledge of the needs of the business world become more important over time and young engineers need to obtain them via targeted training activities and early-stage professional activities before attempting to enter the “major league.”
Putting myself in the shoes of a candidate, I can see job offers being scattered across the Internet and available mostly at employers’ sites, which takes time to find and recruit. Initiatives like the recently launched WaveJobs could be a game-changer in this field.
Patryk: You are a worldwide recognized top scientist and project facilitator with an impressive number of scientific records as well as positions held. Is there any piece of advice you would give to those looking for first jobs in Photonics or Photonics-related fields?
Ioannis: The single most important piece of advice that I can give to young people out there is to invest in their education, being persistent and thorough in the way they study and research new topics, as well as being determined to achieve their highly aspirational goals. Aim high and no-one can stop you from realizing your dreams! Of course, along the way you will find many obstacles and downturns, but remember that it is not the most capable ones that will succeed, but those that are more adaptable to changes.
Patryk: Ioannis, thank you very much for the interview. On behalf of our Society and all photonics professionals thanks for all the contributions to the development of photonics, and on behalf of the students community thanks for all the advice you shared.