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SPIE Professional October 2014 Web-only content

Nobel Laureates find career balance

Optics and photonics scientists have varying motives and interests for seeking a career in academia or industry — and they sometimes work in both sectors of the photonics industry.

photo of Shuji NakamuraNobel Laureate Shuji Nakamura, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics with Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano for invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), developed blue LEDs and the blue laser with gallium nitride while working as an engineer at Nichia Corp. in Japan.

However, from the time he was a child, he wanted to be an academic scientist.

“For a while after I joined [Nichia], I aimed at being a scientist, but there was no spare time to read books or papers,” he told author Bob Johnstone in 1999 for his 2007 biography, "Brilliant." “And if you don’t make things, then you can’t build a business, so you have to be an engineer.”

Nichia didn’t want its engineers writing academic papers, but that didn’t stop Nakamura.

Nakamura, now a professor at University of California at Santa Barbara and co-director of the Solid State Lighting and Energy Center there, says he wrote patent applications for Nichia instead.

“I secretly started writing the patent and the paper at the same time,” he said in an interview with SPIE in 2010. That way, “if the company found out about my paper, they wouldn’t become so mad.”

Today, Nakamura is still actively involved in basic and applied research. He says his contract at UCSB allows him to "do anything" one day a week, so he has the best of both worlds.

The winner of the 2006 Millennium Technology Prize, Nakamura co-founded Soraa, a clean-tech semiconductor company in California, and Kaai, a subsidiary which is commercializing green and blue laser diodes.

Nobel laureates frequently publish research results

As part of their career tracks, Nakamura, Amano, and Akasaki have been actively engaged in disseminating their research in journals and at scientific conferences.

  • Nakamura has served on the program committees of several SPIE international conferences on solid-state lighting in San Diego and is author or coauthor of more than 30 SPIE publications. He was also a plenary speaker at SPIE OPTO 2010.
  • Amano has served on the program committees for two annual conferences at SPIE Photonics West since 2006: Physics and Simulation of Optoelectronic Devices, and Gallium Nitride Materials and Devices.
  • Akasaki has authored or coauthored more than 35 papers at SPIE symposia since 1990.

Three other photonics researchers who won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, SPIE Member William Moerner, nanobiophotonics pioneer Stefan Hell (Germany), and Eric Betzig (USA), have been similarly engaged in the scientific community throughout their careers.

photo of Stefan HellHell, who developed stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy in 2000, has given SPIE plenary talks and taught courses at SPIE events, and he served on the editorial board of the SPIE Journal of Biomedical Optics for 15 years.

Asked about his career journey after the Nobel Prize announcement, Hell told an interviewer that he has always enjoyed his scientific career.

"I love to be a scientist," Hell said. "I've always enjoyed being curious. I've always enjoyed doing challenging things and also challenging common wisdom. A scientist works at a border, at the edge of science, at the edge of knowledge, and so there's a lot of fun of reaching out and thinking about things that other people didn't think about."

Working separately from Hell and each other, Betzig and Moerner earned their Nobel Prize by laying the foundation for single-molecule microscopy.

photo of WE MoernerMoerner, of Stanford University, has presented more than 60 papers at SPIE conferences and has been a member of SPIE for 25 years.

He was the plenary speaker in the nanobiophotonics track at SPIE Photonics West 2012 and has served as session chair or program committee member several times. 

Betzig, a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus, says he is an engineer at heart but has taken an unconventional career path, including resigning a position at Bell Labs to work in industry before going to work at HHMI.

"Chemistry was always my weakest subject in high school and college," Betzig told an interviewer after the Nobel announcement.

Betzig said he did not consider himself a chemist and that it was ironic that he had won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Trained as a physicist, "when I was a young man I would look down on chemists," he said.

"And then as I started to get into super-resolution, which is really all about the probes, I came to realize that it was my karma because instead I was on my knees begging the chemists to come up with better probes for me all the time. So, it's just poetic justice."

Nobel Laureates at SPIE Photonics West 2015

New Nobel Laureates who are coauthors of papers to be presented at SPIE Photonics West 2015 in San Francisco 9-12 February are Nakamura, Akasaki, Amano, Moerner, and Betzig.

Each of the three blue LED inventors is a coauthor of two papers at SPIE Photonics West 2015 in the conference Gallium Nitride Materials and Devices.

In addition, Nakamura will be the speaker at the SPIE Fellow's luncheon during Photonics West. The luncheon and presentation is by invitation only.

Moerner will deliver a keynote talk on "Extracting information from single molecules in 3D super-resolution imaging and from dynamical processes in solution" and will report results from three other coauthored papers at Photonics West.

Betzig is coauthor of three papers on aspects of microscopy scheduled for presentation at SPIE Photonics West.


Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4201410.42

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