Optics: from Rochester to Santa Barbara

After 15 hours and over 2500 miles, I finally landed in Santa Barbara, CA. The first thing I noticed about Santa Barbara was the perfect temperature, the smell of the ocean, and the dark cloudy sky. Later, I learned it was a weather pattern known as June Gloom. Once I arrived at my house, I told my new housemates that I am from Rochester, NY; they looked at me with awe. Transplanting myself from one corner of the country to another corner was not as scary as I thought. Aside from the lack of sidewalks and seasons, I found similarity through the research and the people I work with. Walking through the labs, I noticed the familiar floating optical tables, overhanging microscopes, and a jungle of fiber optics cables. In the student office, I discovered that they also have a joint Optical Society of America (OSA) and SPIE (The International Society for Optics and Photonics) club. This became the place I would call home for the following 2 months.

Once I had settled down, I spent the first week learning more about my research and filling out some very (not) exciting paper work. I ran around the campus trying to get my student ID. Then I began doing more reading on my research and… I got confused. Like all research, confusion is the first sign of learning. I remembered to ask questions, routinely speak with my graduate mentors and continue to ask more questions. However, you should always attempt to seek the answer out first, so the knowledge will stay with you longer. Next, I begin learning how to design a simple PCB board and test the photonic switches that were fabricated in New York State! The wonderful thing about AIM Photonics is that it exists on both coast and there will soon be a facility in downtown Rochester. After spending the second week training on various measurement techniques, I thought I was ready to do the experiments.

I remember standing in front of the optical spectrum analyzer, also called an OSA (not to be confused with the society), wondering why I couldn’t get any signal. After checking every single connect and alignment, I found my answer. I forgot to turn on the laser. Trivial things like that can trip you up, and even the pros are prone to it. On one weekend, I came to lab to do more measurements with one of my graduate mentors. After an hour of alignment, we measured less than 0.1 milliwatt of power at the end of our fiber. We continued to spend more hours debugging the mistakes here and there and finally fixed it. The takeaway of that weekend was to be very mindful when doing measurements. If there is something wrong, check every step/connection on the way. It could be one or multiple things; don’t just assume but hypothesize and test.

Nearing the end of my internship, I feel a bit nostalgic. I didn’t get to go to the beach as often or as I imagined: sipping a margarita under the beautiful California sun. But, I did meet a lot of wonderful people from the AIM Future Leader program and received some great advice from my graduate student mentors. My housemates are also awesome people and overall, I enjoyed the company of the people more than the beach and the weather. However, Rochester could use some more sun.

Research Family

Hey there! John Stair here. I’m a research intern in the Early Undergraduate Research and Knowledge Acquisition (EUREKA!) program. This summer I’m working with the Gordon Group in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UCSB on understanding how surfaces radiate thermal energy. In this post I’m going to focus less on what I’m researching and more on who I’m researching with.

I was expecting this research experience to be like another internship I participated in. I spent an entire summer working in a room full of people that I never heard a word out of; my current research group could not be more different. The graduate and undergraduate students in my lab, like siblings, poke fun at each other and joke around. My professor guides them like a father, not withholding a few well-timed dad jokes. When we break one of our toys (err, instruments?), he pops into his machine shop and rigs up a fix. He is responsible for our growing as researchers as our individual parents were responsible for our growing as people. Everyone in our lab works, eats, laughs, and learns as a family unit… and they’ve already included me. Everyone depends on each other’s experience and knowledge to make progress in their work. Because they all depend on each other, expectations are high, but they’ll go the mile to help. Being welcomed into such an interesting and passionate group has made a great impression on me about academia and research.

When I first came to UCSB there was a huge push to drill the fact that we were a dedicated “research university,” but I thought that there were just hyping themselves up like most colleges do. But what I’ve discovered – and I think this holds for many of our professors here at UCSB – was that my mentor didn’t just want labor out of me. He actively tries to keep me interested and engaged, even when it’s a slow time around the lab. I’ve noticed a real interest in making educated and passionate learners and investigators out of undergraduates, a facet of UCSB life that may be hard to find elsewhere.

If you were looking for specifics on my project, my next post may be what you’re looking for. Yes Dr. Gordon, I’ll even throw in some data for you.

Until next time,