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 the IEEE Photonics Society Distinguished Lecturer 2021, Prof. Lan Fu, Head of the Electronic Materials Engineering Department at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, who focuses on semiconductor nano-materials and optoelectronic devices.


Prof. Lan Fu, Head of the Electronic Materials Engineering Department at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.

Patryk: What is the field of your interest in photonics and how did it all start in your life?

Lan: It all started with a scholarship, which allowed me to start my doctorate studies in materials science at the ANU. In China I did my bachelor’s in the field of microelectronics and continued with theoretical studies for my Master’s degree. At the ANU, one of the post-docs showed me the lab, where I first got in touch with real photonics. That fascinated me, the bright infrared “light” from a tiny semiconductor laser got my entire attention. During my Ph.D. I learned how to make them based on quantum wells, which actually became the theme of my career. These days I do research on photonic components and devices based on nanowires. Moreover, under the influence of my supervisor, Prof. Chennupati Jagadish, I became involved in the IEEE Photonics Society during my Ph.D. (in those days called the IEEE Lasers and Electro-Optics Society (LEOS)). It not only helped me to build my network of contacts but also supported me with a graduate student fellowship. By the end of my Ph.D., I took part in a spin-off company making high power 980nm pump lasers. Although it at the end was not successful, it gave me a glimpse of experience in commercialization of the research outcome.

Patryk: What do you consider to be your biggest achievement and contribution so far to the development of photonics science and industry?

Lan: To me the fundamental understanding of photonic devices (such as lasers/LEDs, photodetectors and solar cells) and integration, and the research that followed up on nanowire-based devices was essential. Nano size brings up a lot of exciting new phenomena and properties but also many challenges. For example, growth/fabrication, and characterization of PN junctions in nanowires are important for many device applications. At the ANU, over the years we have developed a range of nanoscale simulation, fabrication and characterization technologies to understand, design and implement PN junctions to different NW devices. We have also developed various MOCVD growth strategies to incorporate quantum wells in nanowires. This will not only allow us to employ the quantum confinement effect to enhance the device performance, but also have more freedom to expand the wavelength regime through bandgap engineering. However, there is still a lot of knowledge to translate from the bulk material area to nanomaterials with respect to device designs and photonic integration.

Patryk: What excites you most and keeps you motivated to further contribute to this field?

Lan: I am a hands-on person and I need to see the relevance of the work I do. Working at the university gives more freedom to solve fundamental issues, and seeing the wider context of the academic research is needed to realize that one can contribute to the development of future technology, which is very close to our lives. Hopefully, we can identify pathways that can lead to commercialization. I hope one day the technology we work on will become part of AR/VR, self-driving cars or sensor industry and to see that people could benefit from these achievements inspires me.

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?

Lan: We are very selective and we focus on highly developed experimental and/or theoretical skills. Ideally we would like to consider candidates with broader background and skills, and put more focus on their creativity and critical thinking. However, due to the funding time constraints, there is very little time for a postdoc to learn and develop new highly sophisticated technical skills. So often we tend to take candidates with skills closely related to the research to be done in the project. Normally we leverage our network of contacts to find the right candidates and the majority of the applications we receive are overseas; only few are domestic.

Patryk: Would you share any piece of advice you would give to those looking for first jobs in photonics or photonics-related fields?

Lan: For Ph.D. students, who dive deep into a given subject, I always advise them to broaden their views and stay open minded. Look differently at the skills you gain during your Ph.D. They could be very specific but they could be equally applicable to other challenges than those you solved during your Ph.D. Take the effort to understand the broad context of the research you do, foremost its potential applications, so you will be able to elaborate and convince your future employer for your case. Also learn how to communicate those ideas and emphasize your relevant experience and skills. I would encourage students not to work only in the corner of their own research topics, but try to go out of that comfort zone and develop critical thinking, build the network of contacts and develop communication skills.

Patryk: Lan, thank you very much for the interview. We wish you a lot of success in your further research. The advice you gave will hopefully become a beacon for many junior entrants in the photonics field.