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The Photonics West Report - Connections and Directions

By Dirk Fabian


As I flew to San Jose this January, I realized that this would be my 5th Photonics West, and also the last time I would race between different parts of the McEnry Center, Marriott, and Fairmont hotels in a failed attempt to do just one more thing.

Photonics West can be rather overwhelming for a first time conference go-er.  I had been with SPIE for all of 2 weeks when I went the first time.  It is hard to be prepared fully for the size: over 1000 companies and 17,000 people descend on San Jose.  You might share a podium with a top researcher in your field, or have to approach companies or professors to find your next job.  A lot depends on the skills and attitude you bring to the conference. 

As the name implies, skills can be taught and practiced.  This Photonics West featured a series of four professional development seminars to do just that. The Sunday afternoon courses covered a range of these necessary "soft skills:" delivering successful conference presentations, balancing work and family life, transitioning from academia to industry, and professional networking. These skills sometimes sound simple and obvious, but I am always amazed by the new things I pick up.  Siavash Yazdanfar, from GE Global Research, made a similar point: sometimes we know we must accomplish something, but don't know how to actually go about doing it.  He explained how a simple principle for success in a career "make others' lives easier" applies in a variety of specific working and team situations. 

Cecilia, Jorge, and Mike were all able to make an appearance at Photonics West.

Unlike skills, attitude generally works itself out.  Photonics West is fun, and even if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, there are people there to help you enjoy even that.  Jorge Cham, (PhD MechE - Robotics, Stanford Univ.), cartoonist for the popular comic strip PhD, spoke to students on Wednesday night about the "Power of Procrastination." This talk was both hilarious -- Cham has outstanding comedic timing -- and cathartic. Cham offered advice to students experiencing the down-sides of graduate school - the isolation, guilt, and stress - and demonstrated that simple things like laughter, shared experience, and some theraputic procrastination can really help.  

Free food doesn't hurt either, and there were numerous opportunities for that as well.  A savvy student can eat pretty well in San Jose.  That said, I'm really looking forward to tasting what San Francisco will offer.  I saw entirely too much of the bakery in the Fairmont.

I believe one of the unique things about Photonics West is the opportunity for academically oriented people to gain a perspective on business, specifically the business of photonics.  Few conferences have such a variety and density of photonics industry leaders, not just in attendance, but speaking publicly about the challenges they face.  If you can break away from the research talks, I've found the recent Industry Sessions quite interesting. 

Here are some quick economic observations gleaned from the conference:

* Everything Bio-related is bucking the economic trends. More papers, people and exhibitors for the BiOS session this year continues to indicate that Photonics related health technologies are growing.  The technology seems to be maturing (moving out of the lab and in to the market) quickly.  Demand is coming from the aging demographic of the post-WWII baby-boom generation.  This is a good space to be working in right now.

* Buzz in the solar community - there is a lot of optimism about increased US government support for solar energy initiatives which could tip the playing field in favor of rapid development to compete with oil and coal.  Photovoltaic installations grew to 5.5 gW worldwide in 2008, and further growth is nearly guaranteed in Europe and now in the US with efforts like the Solar America Initiative. Solar technologies will benefit from emerging nano-fabrication techniques, like surface processing by high speed lasers so that PV will also provide an expanding market for laser makers. Laser fabrication techniques are necessary for both the wafer-based silicon that currently dominates the photovoltaic market (90%) and the thin-film based systems.

* The crisis in the semiconductor industry was obvious in several panel discussions at the conference. Layoffs are currently rippling through the highly cyclic semiconductor industry.  Both technical challenges, like continued reduction of pattern spacing and increasing power consumption, and economic challenges like the current down cycle of development are creating uncertainty in the market.  Uncertainty creates opportunities for technologies like silicon photonics.  Panel participants working in this field highlighted several ways for silicon photonics to advance that will make it competitive with current chips: creating reliable silicon lasers, reducing the number of total light sources, creating multi-wavelength sources for signal multiplexing, and dealing with the heat issues likely to result. This solution seems farther off (7-10 years).

Business sometimes gets a bad reputation in the academic world, but learning what questions are driving research and development (and thus funding) is just good strategy. 


My brain and schedule are usually full well before I need to leave San Jose.  It was great!  I am really excited to be a part of moving Photonics West to San Francisco next year.  The new space will allow us to do more and we are definitely always looking for ways to make the conference experience beneficial for student members. Thank you to all the people who followed the first rule of networking and said "Hello!" at the conference.  Special thanks to Winnie Tong, from Intuity Medical, for setting up a fun Photonics Locals Night, and Meredith Lee from the Stanford OSA/SPIE Student Chapter for posting Twitter updates for the PW events. Pictures of Photonics West student award winners and student events are in the SPIE Lounge on Facebook.

See you in San Francisco 2010!