Go for the Grand Challenge!
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. Peter Andrekson from Chalmers University, IEEE Fellow, OSA Fellow, past member of the Board of Governors for the IEEE Photonics Society, and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA).
Patryk: What is the field of your interest in Photonics and
how did it all start in your life?
Peter: It all started at Chalmers University. I studied Electrical Engineering and Engineering Physics, and my diploma
thesis was on external cavity wavelength tunable lasers. During the Ph.D. period I worked on noise properties of semiconductor lasers and in 1985 I won the Master’s thesis contest at the IEEE Melecon Conference. To start the Ph.D. was an easy decision for me—my then future promoter had a discussion with me outside the campus building while it was raining heavily. He had this large umbrella over his head, and I had none. I decided to start my Ph.D. just to finish the discussion quickly and hide from the rain back home. It turned out to be a very good decision in my life.
Another, for me, remarkable event was ECOC in Veniceback in 1985, which was my first big conference. We drove in
a car all the way down from Sweden to Italy. This road trip was a great opportunity to get to know your colleagues very well, which is something you do not experience too often nowadays, when you mostly travel by plane. This was yet another eyeopener in my life. I then joined AT&T Bell Labs and spent 3 years there. Actually, my current research interests originate from that period. So in 1992 I started the fiber-optic communication research at Chalmers University, inspired by my work at Bell Labs.That included point-to-point fiber-optic links and phenomena such as polarization mode dispersion, self-phase modulation, cross-phase modulation, and wavelength conversion to mention
In 2004 I co-founded Picosolve Inc., the optical test and measurement company that was selling high-end products
around the globe and was acquired by EXFO in 2009.
Patryk: What do you consider to be your biggest achievement and contribution so far to the development of Photonics science and industry?
Peter: It’s probably the phase-sensitive parametric amplifiers, which rely on the nonlinear effect of four-wave mixing. In
2002 we achieved the first net gain, and we have continued to improve the performance ever since. In 2011 we documented in Nature Photonics the lowest noise figure (1.1dB) amplifier demonstrated to date. We also very recently developed a very low loss waveguide in silicon nitride and demonstrated parametric gain of 10 dB in these chips.
There were many other achievements including soliton transmission of 40–80 Gbps in 1998 over the Swedish operator
network, and the development of the most sensitive uncooled receiver for deep space communication, where one photon per information bit is enough for error-free detection. I have worked under various funding programs that allowed
for those results to be achieved. I especially appreciate long-term projects, like a 10-year project currentlyfunded by the Swedish Research Council, which gives the comfort of secured funding and allows approaching bigger,
Patryk: What excites you most and keeps you motivated to further contribute to this field?
Peter: The vast freedom given in academia is something that undoubtedly keeps me motivated. The salary might have
been higher in industry, but the luxury of having no boss telling you what to do, the luxury of setting your own boundaries
and selecting your own targets is what I appreciate most. Moreover, I really enjoy working together with smart young
people, and seeing them growing, taking up challenges and developing their careers. This is why I am a promoter of mobility, which seems rather low in Sweden. I encourage students to move to different institutions or companies abroad. The fiberoptic communication field has matured a lot since 1970. To become successful now you need to collaborate with external partners, work in clusters, and find a proper stage for collaboration. It is about people, who should be driven by science and not foremost money. Synergy is essential to effectively address new and more complex challenges.
Patryk: At WaveJobs we have noticed that many companies struggle to find proper candidates in the field
of photonics, while there is definitely visible market demand. So, what are the main obstacles you and your
peers experience when hunting for potential employees for your projects? Has it changed with respect to the pre-COVID era?
Peter: Our graduates have always been successful in finding jobs on the local and global market. We give them high
quality education thanks to the very well developed facilities such as the clean room or test and measurement labs. Finding the right candidates for a Ph.D. is a challenge. In the past the Ph.D. candidates would be mostly our graduate students, whom we would know very well by the time they apply for the Ph.D. position. Nowadays, the majority of the applicants come from abroad and often the submitted CVs do not give a full picture of the candidates. Thus, we enroll the Ph.D. researcher for one year and then evaluate and decide whether to continue the project or not. Post-doc applicants are easier to evaluate thanks to our personal networks. What I miss is an intelligent “one-stop shop,” where everyone would go and run the essential part of the recruitment process, i.e., post job advertisements, browse through CVs, especially including the part concerning photonics-related skills and perhaps negotiate.
As for COVID, we do not see any major impact either on our daily work or recruitment process. Of course, COVID has
slowed down many academic processes, but we try to pick the best from the pandemic situation. We will probably work in hybrid mode even in the past-COVID era, and the same will happen with teaching activities. However, we should not forget the potential effects of long-term social isolation on our mental condition. We need to be aware of this.
Patryk: You are a very experienced and highly-cited scientist with an impressive portfolio of important contributions to the photonics development. Is there any piece of advice you would give to those looking for first jobs in Photonics or Photonics-related fields?
Peter: I see many students being too modest about their competence, but I would advise them not to look for a high
salary in the first place. Look at who you will be working with. Establish yourself in a leading team. Go out of your comfort
zone and make the extra effort to work on relevant and difficult problems. Do work on challenging topics that will pay off for the community and yourself in the end. Do not go for incremental improvements, go for the grand challenges!
Patryk: Peter, thank you very much for the interview. The advice you gave, supported with your own career history is very motivating for the young entrants to the photonics field, but I am sure it is equally valuable to those experienced in the field as well.