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Credit: Columbia University - SEAS
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Interview of Michal Lipson by David Zierler on September 14, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Michal Lipson, Eugene Professor in the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Columbia University. She recounts her childhood as the daughter of a prominent physicist whose work took the family to Israel and then in Brazil, where she spent her formative years in São Paulo. Lipson explains her decision to pursue a degree in physics at Technion in Israel, where she remained to complete her graduate studies in semiconductor physics under the direction of Elisha Cohen. She describes her postdoctoral research at MIT in material science with Lionel Kimerling, and she explains the opportunities that led to her first faculty position at Cornell. Lipson describes her dual interest in pursuing basic science research and industry-relevant work. She discusses her work in photonics which led to her MacArthur fellowship and the significance of her study of slot waveguides and optical amplification in silicon. Lipson describes her subsequent work in nonlinear photonics and high-power lasers, and she explains the opportunity leading to her current position at Columbia, where she has focused on two-dimensional materials. At the end of the interview, Lipson emphasizes the fundamental importance of oscillators that have always informed her research.
Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is September 14th, 2020. I am so delighted to be here with Professor Michal Lipson. Michal, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me.
So to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
I'm a Eugene Professor at Columbia University in the department of Electrical Engineering and in the department of Applied Physics.
And how long have you been in this position?
Five years. I moved here from Cornell.
Okay. All right, Michal, let's take it all the way back to the beginning in Israel. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.
So, my father did his PhD with Ramsay, who won the Nobel Prize. And he did his PhD in Harvard in physics.
Is your father American-born?
Exactly. Both my parents are American born. I have this accent, but I have a very strong history with New York City. My mother is a second-generation American. Her grandparents immigrated to New York in the 1800s. My father's parents immigrated to New York in early, very early, 1900s. And he went to City College, and after that he did his PhD in Harvard, as I said. He went to City College, this was one of the few places that accepted, that did not have quota for Jews.
And then they moved to Livermore, where he did his work there after his PhD for a while. For a few years. And then they immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. And this was common because the country was just beginning. Israel was just beginning.
They made aliyah [moved to Israel], or they were visiting?
They made aliyah. They changed their name from Raymond. He was Raymond, to Reuven. It's a very Israeli name, Jewish name. She was called Barbara, and she changed it to Irina. I mean, very Israeli. Actually, my father says that the first year that they were married, that they were in Israel, they only spoke Hebrew. Even though neither of them really knew Hebrew. But they made such a strong effort to just know, to speak the language. And he went to Weizmann. He did kind of a postdoc in Weizmann, and then he was recruited by Nathan Rosan, a student, to be one of the first faculty members, like the founder faculty members, of the physics department in the Technion. And then that's where he stayed for 20 years, and this is where we were born in Haifa, which is in the north of the country.
Michal, were either of your parents frum?
Were either of my parents from Israel?
No, "frum," religious? Did they come from a religious--?
Ah, religious, religious.
No. Haredi, no.
No, but I-- So continuing the story, when we were—I'm a twin—and when we were eight years old, my father took us all to a sabbatical in Brazil, São Paulo. Which ended up being 30-year sabbatical. And they just stayed there. And there, my sister and me, we went to a Haredi. To a school that is very, that is Orthodox. So my upbringing, my schooling, was all very religious. Even though we were not religious. But it was the school that had the strongest Hebrew, which was important to my parents, and my father, even though we were not religious, my father always had a soft spot for Judaism, religion, culture in general.
So you were born in Israel, you were there until eight, and then you spent the rest of your childhood in Brazil.
Yes, but when I was 19, I went back alone to Israel. They stayed in Brazil. But I went back alone and finished my undergrad, did my PhD, and then moved to the US.
It doesn't end there, because when I came to the US, ten years later, I brought my father and my mother, but she ended up passing a few years later, but today my father is here.
So, did you have a good idea growing up what it would be like to be a physicist? In other words, did your father involve you in his career and share with you his research and what he was working on?
Yeah, oh, absolutely. I mean, he-- Look, my mother ended up, my mother was an artist. She ended up doing her PhD in physics in São Paulo. Undergrad in physics, master’s in physics, almost finished her PhD. That's my mom. My sister is a well-known space physicist at the University of Texas at Austin. So, it's all my dad. He was-- We used to laugh that he was able—and he did that several times—to convince our boyfriends to study physics. He was so passionate about his work, that he couldn't understand why would someone do anything else. And he still feels it, and it's definitely contagious, that it's an incredible privilege that we have to just study and learn and be paid for it.
What was his field? What did he work on?
He, so his PhD was in nuclear physics and then he transitioned slowly to cosmology, and he became much more interested in plasma physics than cosmology. He did a little bit of solid state. Today, he works with me. He works with my students and he is kind of part of the group.
Tell me about his visiting professorship in Brazil that turned into a 30-year stay.
Yeah. I mean this was something that I, I don't know. It's still a mystery in the family honestly. What exactly was this. It wasn't planned. This was not planned. They definitely, their original plan was to come back. But things kind of evolved, and then that's what it became. I think honestly a part of it is that he was still an immigrant in Israel. And maybe it was a factor. The fact that he was not an Israeli. He didn't 100% fit. But I don't know. But we felt, we completely adapted. I mean me, my sister and me I mean. All my studies were in Portuguese. I mean, the only literature I learned is Brazilian, is Portuguese. And we loved-- My sister stayed there 15 years more than me, and so she's a little bit more Brazilian than me, but I feel very fortunate to have grown up there.
And tell me about the school. Is there a large Jewish community in São Paulo?
Yes, it was at the time. I think now, a lot of people left to Israel and to the US. But at the time, yes. And I would say a few hundred thousand at least. And there were several, so I would say maybe four or five, private schools, very large private schools. There were two or three big country clubs. Gigantic. I mean, it was a very large community, but it was a-- And very kind of loud, meaning you couldn't ignore it. You saw it in many, many places. But it was mostly focused on small commerce. And I saying it right? They had small shops, they had maybe-- Most of these Jews, they were—these were my friends, their parents, were all immigrants from everywhere. None of them were Brazilian, really.
And in terms of your own identity growing up, did you think of yourself as an Israeli living in Brazil, or did you think of yourself essentially as Brazilian?
I didn't think of myself as Brazilian, but I can't say that I thought of myself an Israeli, because when I was in Israel, everybody was asking me where I was from. So, I think I could pass. My Brazilian, my accent, my Portuguese is strong enough for me to pass as a Brazilian, and my Hebrew is strong enough to pass as an Israeli, but not for too long. You talk to me for ten minutes, you can figure it out.
And your accent--
And obviously, I'm not an American.
And your accent is probably where you're from. It's all together.
Almost, yes, exactly. Exactly. And actually, the family jokes that, and it is actually, that we start in one language and end the sentence in another. We can conjugate verbs in another language.
Michal, tell me a little bit more about the school that you went to. Was it like Haredi essentially? Boys and girls were separate?
Yes, yes. It was Haredi, and I feel very fortunate. And my sister also. Even though it's such a different world from where I am today. I can't even explain it to people around me, but it, I think it-- Look, when we were in Brazil, as part of that community, because everybody was focused on commerce, we were pretty isolated. We didn't really belong. All my friends had their chauffeur and had their helper for white shirts, their helper for blue shirts. I mean, it was incredible. And we didn't have any of this. Father was a professor. I mean, it was-- When they even asked, my friends, “What does your father do?” I said, “He's a professor.” “Oh, you mean a teacher.” They couldn't even fathom what does it mean. So the fact that the school was Haredi, was very religious, and we were not, it was just one more thing that we were different. We also didn't speak Portuguese at home. I mean, a little, right, with time, but my parents didn't speak very well Portuguese, so we were just very different than everybody else, and this was just one more... But we ended up knowing really, I mean, I can recite you whatever you need. Whatever little paragraph in that little text in the bible, I know. And I can tell you that I, of course I don't use it, but it's part of who I am, I think.
Certainly. Did your family go to shul on Shabbat?
No, no. We were really not religious at all. We were one of the very few at the school that were really not religious.
Was it difficult, sort of having that dual exposure of your friends being in school, coming from Haredi families and your family not being like that?
So many people in the school were conservative, but still were religious. I don't think there were many that were not religious at all. I think we became an odd—we became known as the odd twosome, right? I mean my sister and me. I mean it was, we were also pretty interested in math and physics, both of us. Which no other girl was. We were very different anyway. So I don't think this was very hard for us. It was something that everybody knew, and it—Brazil is, I should say, Brazil is very a tolerant country in general. Or at least it was. There were people from all over the world. It was very tolerant to other cultures. So we felt very, I think we felt good. We felt okay.
Another question, Michal, about the dual identity. Obviously, your father encouraged you and your sister to go into science. But I wonder in that school environment, if it was difficult for you to express your interests and your talents?
Yes. So I should say that the school was a school, but not as a school as you see it. Like it was more of a community. I'm not sure how much it actually-- I mean math and physics, we had once in a while, we had a good teacher, but it wasn't... So just to give you a sense, in the last year, my father became a little stressed. He say, “Hey, you guys need to go to college.” And the only college that was not, that you didn't have to pay your life for it, because it had the private—that it's not like here, it was private like we talk about like just insane fortune—or you had the public. And the public was University of São Paulo. The level was way higher than the private. So it was very high level. But it was super difficult to get in. And the way you got in, it was doing exams. So your grades didn't matter, but you had to do special exams. And there was no way we were going to pass, since our school was not that strong, in order to pass those. And nobody ever went to that university to study physics. This was not something that the people did. So, he encouraged us not to go to school in the last year and just study at home with books. He bought us all of these books and just go study. And then he made a deal with the school that they would let us know when the exams are so that we could come in and take the exams. But they would turn their other head, you know, turn their eyes somewhere else and not report us that we're not going to school. And he promised them, he said, “Look I promise you, they will get into University of São Paulo and you will be proud, you would be able to announce it, if you let me do it.” And they did.
Why then Technion? Why go back to Israel for college?
So, I met my first husband in a trip to Israel. And he is a professor here at Columbia. We were, he's a kind of an extended family today for us. So, at the time, I was 19 and we married. He was the son of a colleague of my father in the physics department. So, there is a well-known book in optics, Lipson and Lipson, and that's him.
So, Lipson is my last name from many years ago from my first husband. But it's not the one I was born with. So that's really the reason why I left. But I mean it wasn't so extraordinary. I mean, it was extraordinary to do it at that age, but I should say that there were many, many friends, I would say a majority of my Brazilian friends, Jewish Brazilian friends, that I grew up with are today in Israel. Because we grew up in this Jewish community, very Zionist. So, it was a natural thing to go to Israel.
Had you visited since you were in Brazil? Was that the first time back, was when you went to Technion?
Yeah, so I went with my father when I was, a few months before I married. That's when I met Hod at the time. I went with my father to visit, and he-- And it was the first time, so that was, let's see, 11 years, right after I moved to Brazil. And it was amazing for me because everybody could say Michal.
Everybody could, you know, I don't know. Suddenly I felt belonging. Of course, when I went to Israel, then suddenly my Brazilian part, I felt “Hmm, where are the Brazilians here?” But it did show me a side that I didn't even know I missed when I was in Brazil, right? When I went to Israel, suddenly I felt, “Wow, I feel so... Nobody is asking me what kind of name is that?” And I don't know. So, I liked it a lot.
You're a sabra [a natural-born Israeli].
Yeah. And I don't know, it was very... I wanted to go to Israel, and I was getting married, and I already did two years at University of São Paulo in physics. So I was able to transfer it to the Technion, and I finished it there.
What kind of physics did you want to study? Because of your father, because you already had the two years, you were probably already pretty well-developed in your interests. I'm curious-- No, you were not? No?
No, no. The one thing I wanted to do is math. I liked math a lot. And I always-- Until pretty late, I played with the idea, I even took a few courses in economy with math. I liked math.
But applied math? Not abstractions?
Applied, applied math. But I didn't know what I wanted, and in the last year of the Technion when I was there already two years, I went back to Brazil and spent the whole summer with my father in the library of the physics department in University of São Paulo, just going over what's hot, what's interesting, and what topic to do my master, my PhD. And he really helped me zero in. I knew I wanted something applied, and he was very theoretical, so that, I knew I didn't want that. But I didn't know what exactly in applied, and he helped direct me. He taught me, he showed me what does it mean to have an impact on science. And on technology. But what does it mean, one more paper, what does it mean, a strong paper that really kind of make people follow you? Opens the door to new thinking? So, he really made that distinction and he helped me choose. And that was semiconductor physics, basically. I did my PhD in semiconductor physics.
Did you think about leaving Technion for graduate work? How did you just decide to continue on from undergraduate?
Yeah, no, it was not an option to do my PhD outside. It's about, I think, my husband was still in the army. He did his army later. After his undergrad. So, he kind of did the opposite of what most Israelis do. Sometimes they give you that option, and he took that option. So he was still in the army so he couldn't leave, but not only that. I think at the time, it was very weird to do your PhD outside, for Israelis. It took me forever to get used to Israel, as a Brazilian. It's a very different culture. Sabra, there are, it can be rough as a Brazilian. And it took me forever. And, ha, by even later, when we actually decided to do a postdoc, I was the one who wasn't really keen on leaving. So definitely when I was doing my PhD, absolutely, that was way too early.
Who was your graduate advisor?
Elisha Cohen. I actually just met him in my last trip to Israel. He already retired. He, it was on a quantum heterostructures in semiconductor physics. It was kind of the hardest thing at that time. It was a very strong collaboration that he had with Bell Labs. With a guy named Loren Pfeiffer, who is still I think in Princeton. It was just exciting time for that area, for the semiconductor physics, with optics, and he was a classic physicist. Really taught me how to do good, fundamental work.
And how was your dissertation related to his research?
So, it was completely along his main area. So, I did not deviate. I mean, he had a group of about five or six students. And I was absolutely part of the kind of the mainstream of his work. I can't tell you that I had... I was still adapting at that time. I remember one time I went to him, and I told him, “Look, I can't even get time on the setup.” Because it was one setup, low temperature setup, to be shared among all the students. And there was a lot of elbowing. But I saw it as elbowing, I don't think other people saw it, because it was so normal in Israel. But me as a Brazilian, I didn't really know how to play exactly. The structure was not, I didn't feel so comfortable there. And I remember that his answer was, “Look, you're in Israel now. You have to learn the game and toughen up.” [laugh]
What did you want to accomplish? What was your next opportunity after defending the dissertation?
That one was clear to me, that we were going to do a postdoc. I was going to do a postdoc for sure. I definitely wanted academia, and that was my father 100%. I mean kind of the freedom, the idea that you could investigate anything. And already at that time, it seemed very hard. And it was a motivator for me. I loved the idea of having something very concrete. You know, get a job in academia, that seemed super hard. And I wanted to conquer that. Even simply the fact that it was hard seemed exciting for me. Today I think it's a little crazy, but at the time, this was... And an idea that, you know, it was a kind of a romantic thing, that you could study anything. And he had still, my father, well until today, but an enormous influence on me. He was still really advising and even though it wasn't his field, he was a very good mentor.
Now, where were you able to go for your postdoc? What was it that you were able to get?
Yeah, so the postdoc, I went to MIT to work with Kimerling in material science. Now, and it was kind of related to what I was doing, because I studied cavities and Lionel was interested in cavities. Even though it was a different material system. And this is by far, I mean, this was an incredible time in my life, in my career. It was amazing, MIT. It was amazing. Because first of all, Kimerling was—and is still I'm sure—this incredible, inspiring leader. He kind of, he asked the big questions. He always kind of nonchalant, like he had the chutzpah to say, “Let's define the figure of merit.” Like things like that that I loved. What do you mean, define the figure of merit? I mean, isn't there a figure of merit out there that we need to compare, and he said, “No. People should look up to us. We define it.” You know, that idea was just super exciting. I mean, he definitely came up with the idea of this silicon photonics, that optics could be very important for computing. He was just a visionary, and he was a great mentor for me, but not a mentor in the sense that, say, “You do this, you do that.” He was just very...anything I said, he was, “Yeah, yeah! This is great. Let's patent this, let's write a paper.” He just gave me the feeling that I could do anything. It was just a wonderful time.
Michal, to foreshadow into the future a little bit, where you do get involved in industry and patents and businesses, when did you develop those interests? I mean, it clearly--
With Kimerling. That's Kimerling absolutely.
Kimerling, yes, absolutely. I didn't know anything about that before meeting Kimerling. I had no interest. But Kimerling really showed the abili-- Okay, he was an expert on taking a problem that the industry needed, and going back and understanding, asking the questions, “Why don't they have it today?” And he always said, “I don't want to hear that nobody thought about it. Come on.” Why fundamentally, and then which is exactly what I try to do today, is trying to understand what fundamentally is hard, and then why? So that you kind of address the physics so that the impact is much larger than that little thing that the industry need. You know, so that what the industry needs just gives you a clue on what are the big problems. But you still maintain that connection with the industry that it's one of your drivers, one of the reasons why you're doing what you're doing. And it brings relevance. It makes sure that you're not just exploring crazy ideas. You're still, you're always relevant. I loved it.
It sounds like you also learned the value that basic science does not necessarily get degraded when there is an economic or business value to the research.
Yes, absolutely. I mean, what he, maybe he taught me a little bit of that, but I'm a strong believer that you-- I mean, my father was very strong, says that strongly, that what you think is important in science, or in technology, should not—try not to be too—you shouldn't be in a bubble, but try not to go with the flow and be too influenced by what other people are thinking or like what you say, integrating, or... There should be an absolute truth. What really is needed, not what you think at the moment or, for example, I don't—not sure how I feel about sentences that say, “I am interested in.” Are you interested, or the rest of the world is interested, or...? You see what I mean? Like you have to ask yourself and really be honest. So to answer your question about the degrading, that shouldn't play any role. The absolute truth, what's really important, either for science or for technology, that's the reason why someone should do the work.
What did you learn about physics at MIT that you might not have appreciated at Technion?
It's a good question. I would say the two institutions taught me—the two professors, right—taught me completely different aspects of what I do today. Kimerling gave me a bigger vision. What are the big questions? He taught me the value of impact, the value of communication. Of choosing a good topic. Research-wise. He taught me tons of material science, which I didn't know anything about. Processing. And Elisha taught me, you know, basic physics, and kind of you know, is it semiconductor physics, optic. It was so strong, his fundamentals, that it's very, very easy today for me to kind of take it with me to any related fields. If I have a solid-state physicist, or an optical physicist that I'm talking to, it's very easy for me to transition, because the fundamentals were really strong on both optics and solid-state physics, kind of very general. He gave us—he didn't want us to research in the beginning, just give us books and you read that first, and then exercises and so on, just and then start the work. He was just kind of very, he was wonderful and in very good foundations.
I'm curious, Michal, if you thought about going back to Israel, and if you owed Israel military service at any point?
Yes. So, I didn't owe them because I became married. And also, it was a special ruling then, that I left before I was 14, so I didn't really need to do military, and when I came back, I was already, I was married. So, then I didn't need. And if I thought about coming back. So I remember the Tel Aviv, I think it's called—it's kind of the dean of the school of Tel Aviv University, came to talk to me when I was MIT and wanted to recruit me. And since then, you know, on and off, especially in the beginning of my career, I had many discussions with Israel. But you have to remember, I didn't have family in Israel. Only Hod's family, right, my-- And I had one aunt in Israel, but my parents weren't there. I felt that the US for me, for my career, was the land of opportunity. And it was where the hottest of the hot was being done. Kind of the top of the top. And also, at that time, when I started, like the year 2000, there was no one doing the type of work that I was doing in Israel. It was still all the optical people, photonic people, were still kind of the semiconductor people. They were doing spectroscopy. It was-- They were soon to retire, and then came a new generation that is fantastic today. But at that time, there was no one. And I didn't feel—I felt that if I would go to Israel, I would be not as exposed to the top of the top, and I wanted to make sure I was.
So this is really different from your father, who intended to go back to Israel, and then surprise, made a whole life and career for himself in Brazil. You knew early on when you got to MIT that it was in the United States where you would make your life and career?
Yes, it was as soon as we—you know, actually, when we left Israel, we packed our stuff so that it would, so we could come back. It was kind of... And then I would say a week into MIT, when we were in Boston, I said, “Why did I do all of this? I'm here. I'm good.” This was, I thought like—I remember the first time I met with Kimerling, he showed me the periodic table with all the elements, and he said, “Okay, so you want to study (mumbles) and cavities, so let's see, which materials we could take?” He was, anything is possible. It felt like amazing. Just yeah, anyway.
Michal, I want to ask about your professional identity at this point, right? So your PhD is in the physics department, your postdoc is in material science, and now you're looking at faculty positions, and you end up in electrical engineering. In terms of your own identity as a scholar and as a scientist, where does your research fit in best in terms of, if there would be one department that would be most appropriate to serve as your intellectual home?
I ended up in electrical engineering because in the US—and it is very country-dependent—in the US, optics does not belong in physics. It really belongs in much more —not even applied physics. It's really electrical engineering. In Europe, it usually belongs to physics. So, I think my research belongs in electrical engineering. However, in terms of my identity, I see myself as an applied physicist. Because I always try to be on that kind of border, trying to ask what is fundamental—which not necessarily people in other disciplines in electrical engineering would think along those lines. I should say that electrical engineering today is an interesting department, because it's such a diversity of topics. But there are a lot of solid state and nano and optics today. About, I would say, almost every department has about 1/4 that is kind of related to topics that i identify with.
How did Cornell come together for you? Were you looking for academic jobs in the US?
Yes. I was looking. So yeah, no, no this didn't land. I did a very careful planning. Any, any school. Any top school, I applied. I completely over-did it. And I had also two body problem. So, it was something that I-- And I had a little boy. So, for me, this was very important. I mean, we would have to be together and be with my boy, and so Cornell worked out amazing. In terms of their offer and in terms of career-wise, they were very good at just leaving me alone, but giving me the tools I needed.
Was Cornell, was part of the attraction at Cornell is that they were going to be supportive of your lab work?
Look... In the beginning, when you are recruited, everyone is supportive.
So you can't really say, if I'm honest, you know, you can't really say that they were supportive. I knew that they would be supportive. That was not surprising. Okay, one of the big attractions at Cornell is that they had the nanofabrication facility, which is the best in the world. And I knew I wanted to use that and that was very, very important for me to become independent. Because in contrast to Israel, my work in Israel-- So in Israel, Elisha, right, and all that, all the solid-state physicists, they did beautiful physics, but the samples—the key to actually doing the work, the actual samples, were always shipped from AT&T. From Bell Labs. Because these people were friends with, they did their postdoc together... I did not feel, and this was like that all across basically all solid-state physics. If you wanted to do any work in material science, you wanted to do something, you were dependent on whoever had the sample. And I felt that as a young unknown, because I did my PhD in Israel, nobody knew what Technion was at that time. You know, as a young, unknown female which was kind of at the time, eh, forget about it. You know? Very young. There was no way I was going to put my career at the hands of someone else.
I couldn't. So, and I didn't even have anyone. I may have-- So I wanted to have the fabrication where I could make my own samples. And that was very, very good motivation to come to Cornell.
And the ability to make your own samples would be relevant for what? What was your first... I mean, as you were setting up your research agenda, what did you want to work on to get things going?
Okay, so this was actually very carefully planned. This was not-- I knew I wanted to work on something high impact. My father kind of buzzing in my ear, always saying, "You know, make an impact! What's going to be written on your grave?" He always kind of asked, "What's a big question? Make an impact!" It was very, very strong for him. So I wanted to do something with a strong impact, but relatively short path.
But strong impact, Michal, can mean two things or both. It could have a very strong theoretical basis, or it could have a very strong applied basis. So as a first measure, how did you define, in your mind, what does a big impact mean?
Yeah no, what he always says, "Look, you make an impact either on basic science or on technology. Not in between." Always says. But for me, it was always the more applied. I was just naturally drawn to that. But what I've learned is that if you don't identify the fundamental problem behind the applied problem, then it's not going to be high impact. It's going to just respond to the tiny, little problem that you are trying to address. So I wanted to make a high impact. I wanted to be interesting, right? To have a reason why it's not there, right? Fundamental challenge. And I wanted to be independent. And Silicon Photonics was perfect for this. Really was just perfect, because it had a goal with actual numbers. It wasn't subjective. It's not like, sometimes people say, "Oh, she does good physics or not good physics." No, no, no. There's none of that. At that time, you had to produce, make silicon modulate. Silicon doesn't have an electro-optic coefficient. So fundamentally, it's very, very hard. So you had to make a modulate out of this material that's almost, it's almost like a window. It doesn't react to (inaudible). With one volt, it had to be gigahertz—you see what I mean? The metrics, the numbers, were very well-defined, and it was a race, whoever could do it won. And it was, I loved that because I was an outsider. So there is no politics here. It's, the race is on and whoever does it and there is no-- I loved the quantitative, the objectiveness.
What were some of the challenges as you were setting this up? You wanted to make an impact, but clearly, it's not an easy process to achieve success.
So it was, I invested in this area which was considered very exotic. It was, I really believed in it, it made sense, but it was-- I used to see a lot of rolling eyes when I talked about it. It wasn't mainstream. And I had... So what kind of challenges, I don't even know how to begin, because it was just so many. So let's say the political challenge was that—so you ask, where was my home? So I remember one time, I went down the stairs in the department, super excited to tell a big person in the department, “Hey, I—" And this was just three years, when I'm into the—two years into my career. Very early. I said, “They accepted, Nature accepted. We're going to be in!” And this was at the time when no, you know, very, very little applied physics was being published in Nature. Nothing. And I made it. It was there. I thought, “I'm done. I'm done!” This was at the time where, you had a Nature or a Science, that's it, you got your tenure, you know? And the response was, “Uh-huh. But you will publish in a real journal, right?” A real journal means IAAA journal. So I realized, “Ooh, I have a problem. That's a problem.” And then there were, so even despite, I had two Natures, eh? In my three-year review, despite the fact that I got offers already from outside, and I had two of those Natures, and it was all over the news, the silicon photonics, I got a terrible three-year review. Terrible. Like basically, they basically said, “Maybe you should reconsider your career, your everything.”
And this is before you're tenured, so this is very scary.
Super scary. It was, I actually got the letter on the day on the bris of my second son. Because I was so sure that I was all set, so sure that I was all set, that I said, “Okay, time for another one, finally I can do it.” You know? And then I get the letter. Wow, it was, I was... But I remember, you know, a person who really helped me then was my first husband. He still does work that is kind of very courageous, very different. And he kept-- I was ready to hire a postdoc in another discipline. Maybe I should pivot. And then, “No, no. If you really believe, really believe, you stick to it.” And I remember my father also resonated with this, because you stick to what you truly believe, and things will fall into place. And they did.
In what ways did you turn this criticism productively and constructively for you? In what ways was it not just, you felt attacked and you should feel badly for yourself? But in what ways was there something there to grab onto and see an opportunity to actually improve on what you were doing?
I really liked, like when you're asking this, because I think about it a lot. Okay, I remember a story going back, that I remember a time when I was a second-year faculty member, and we were having a faculty meeting, and they wanted to hire someone in photonics, in my area. And this is the first time I hear about it. And so no one told me that. And the motivation for the-- So the person kept arguing his case, and he said, “Look, we don't have anyone in photonics!” And I'm sitting there, beyond ignored. And I remember very clearly. You know when you remember your thoughts? I remember my thought. I said, “Okay, I need to publish so much that I can plaster my corridor.” Which was, he had to go through my office, in front of my office, to get out to the parking. And I remember, “I have to plaster my wall with big papers so that I can't be ignored.” It was a decision. I don't remember feeling sorry for myself. But I do remember with the three-year review, I do remember being scared that, “Okay, I might lose my job.”
Michal, I want to ask. So, it's an interesting narrative. We have this time, which is a low point in your career, and not too long after, the MacArthur Foundation, right?
So can you sort of, let's zoom out for a second. How does this happen? Even if you're the genius to be, right? How do you get from obscurity, not even knowing if you should continue with your field, to that level of recognition? What's the first chapter that explains where your career is headed? In other words, is there a dramatic breakthrough moment, or is it really just the day in and the day out and the cumulative effect of all of that hard work leads to this recognition? How do you understand this remarkable meteoric trajectory?
Okay, so the dramatic. The dramatic moment already happened. When I got the letter and the bris for my son, this was after. There was a dramatic moment. When my student you know, when my student called and said, “I see the light!” Because he was actually-- But see the light literally. Because he was able to send light in a tiny, tiny waveguide, this was the first time that you could couple fibers through a waveguide. Or when my student called and said, hey, he got a modulator working. I mean, these were very dramatic moments. And I must say that even, that I got offers from lots of universities before the letter. So I was scared, but I cannot honestly tell you that I was—I was scared of having to move, but I wasn't scared of being jobless. I said, “I can't believe it.” I mean, you know, it felt unfair, but it didn't feel that I was not doing well or... It just felt unfair, and I knew that there is—I don't know how to put it. Look, someone that didn't know me very well, is not really in the field, not too long ago—maybe I would say a few months ago, just before COVID—we were in a meeting, and he comes and tells me there was someone very, very famous comes and tells me, “You're doing so well. Well done.” Who would have thought? So I'm telling you, you can't be perturbed. I'm telling you this because I felt that I was perturbed by their treatment, by their demeaning. But I'm not sure I'm answering your question, but it wasn't-- I knew it was unfair, but I knew that it was part of the... Like with this guy, I said, “Okay.” It was very clear to me that even if I won the Nobel Prize, he would have said the same thing. That there are some circumstances that it's not about MacArthur or, or-- This was a department that was a very, there were a lot of people that were about to retire.
Michal, you're also a woman, is that part of the equation as well?
Oh so, not a little. A lot.
A lot. I was Israeli also, in part, and I did not know how to play the game good enough, I think. There were some people, one person in particular, that I should have bowed and been more deferential, and I thought, “Hey, let's work together.” Uh-huh, that was not—I had to be more. Maybe it was, if someone would ask me what's the advice that I could give, is learn the game a little bit. Don't completely ignore it, because it would have been much less painful if I didn't have to go through it. But to answer your question, I did plan it. I cannot say that the success fell from the sky. I think it was planned, I had good mentors. Of course, there's always kind of the circumstances and so on, but the way one is treated, especially a woman, does not always correlate to their reality.
So the same kind of question, Michal. As you're coming up on tenure, what changes? What turns around? Because at this point--
It is less perfect for me. Tenure was great. Tenure--
No of course, but what my question is, it sounds like you're on a path not to getting tenure. You don't know how to play the game--
Yes, I know, but the tenure time, not the tenure itself. The tenure time was, solved my problem. Like what my father said, and that's exactly what happened in the tenure. Is that as a woman, you cannot be average. Or good. Or above average. You cannot be susceptible to the noise. You have to be way above. So above that it is obvious that there is no question, that it doesn't become this issue of what someone said, or someone treats you, that is not according to the reality. That there needs to be objective evidence. And by the time I got to my tenure, which was just two years later actually, and it was then letters started arriving, and I could see in the department an enormous shift of the way I was treated before tenure. But I could see that they were reading my letters. I knew. I could even tell when did the letters arrive. Because suddenly I was treated like, whatever I said in the faculty meeting, everybody kept repeating. It was a transformation. So for me, it was great. Because finally, they had to be confronted kind of with it. Every day, and I felt great. It was good.
How well does this coincide with your work on slot waveguides?
Oh, it was about that time. Maybe a little earlier. A little earlier. I think slot waveguides were about 2006, maybe, the tenure was 2007, 2008. Yep, something like that.
And this of course is a fundamental contribution to the field.
What, to go back to those questions from your father, from MIT, what were the big questions that this research was responsive to?
So it answered whether—the question, whether fundamentally you can confine light to regions way smaller than the wavelengths. I mean, you had-- There were some—people knew that you could use near field to kind of localize light, but it was always associated like two very, very small regions, but it was always associated with a lot of losses. So yes, you could confine light to very small regions, but only in, you know, a tenth of the light. Or very little of it. Now, the slots showed an actual waveguide where you could confine light very strongly. Way below the wavelengths of light. And almost with no losses. Like all of the actual light stayed in that slot. So, it was in very counter-intuitive to what we all as kind of optical physicists were used to thinking about confining light.
And why do you think it resonated in the field the way that it did? I mean, it starts to get cited very heavily and very quickly, right? So, what do you think clicked in the field in terms of paying attention to this research?
I remember how I solved it. I used to ask the audience, how strongly could they confine light, and how much? You know if they only had a dielectric. Like no matter nothing, how much you could confine. And then when I showed, I remember this was always kind of a, seems like magic. So I think it was... People needed it for actual phenomena. Like people needed to, and later I used it to, as optical tweezers. To actually increase optical forces, anything that relies on optical confinement gets stronger with the slot. But I think the surprise factor played a big role. That's my feeling.
What other research were you taking on at this time? What were some of your other major projects?
Yeah, so at the time actually, I remember I was very keen on going wild there a little bit, which is common in tenure. Once you get tenure, you—and I was, and I started doing for example, cloaking. I worked a little bit on it. And... But you know, silicon photonic was becoming more and more real there, and so I always had projects that kind of tried to address what's the next, what's a real problem in silicon photonics? Why is it not there yet?
And when you say silicon photonics is becoming more real, in what ways? In terms of the technology, in terms of products?
Yes, yeah. In terms of people were, beyond just research, it was exploding there. But beyond research, just actual—so for example, IBM and Intel and so on, they stopped talking to me then. Which was very good news, because it meant that they had their own research. They were taking it seriously. So, I always had money from kind of funding from government and so on to look at the main problems that, how could I take silicon photonics to the next level, once the industry gets to where we were, like our individual devices? What would, why is it hard to, I don't know, scale in power or whatever it is? And so, I always had some funding associated to targeting to silicon photonics.
And in terms of industry, to get back to your developing interests in this, are you starting to talk with people in industry about the possible application of this research for commercial products?
Yes. I mean at that time I was, you know, these research—a little bit of research, so I don't want to just-- It was an incredible, exciting time, but it was also a little bit sad story. That... I'm not sure it's sad, but anyway. So I was maybe three years in, a guy comes, says he has a startup, and wants to fund my work on coupling fibers to waveguide. And he knew I had a solution, which was the inverse taper—which today is used everywhere. And he said, “Why, I have funding.” Like he would give me a gift. But he wanted to me to serve on the board of the company. And I was scared of conflict of interest, because silicon photonics is my work, my research. If I also have a company on that, how can I separate between? So I refused. And it ended up that research with especially the taper, is all products of Cisco today. So and I didn't make any gains on it. Because I felt that, you know, I couldn't have done—I really had to make a choice at that time. But later on, yes, I was already talking to industries. There were many—I was patenting a lot. And there were several industries that wanted to start, wanted to license. Startups wanted to license. And I was licensing, and I started a startup around 2010, I started a startup, not using silicon photonics, but more for research instrumentation. It remained a small effort, but it was a good—it was interesting for me.
What was the state of optical amplification in silicon at this point? Was this a well-developed field?
No, not at all. I mean, so not only that-- So this was a time when I, in 2010, really I started working with Alex Gaeta, who is my husband today, on nonlinear optics. And optical amplification. And this was, he basically, I mean we were in a conference, and we sat down and on a napkin he showed me the parametric process that he thought could work in those waveguides. And it worked beautifully. It was just really…I mean it's based on that sketch. And then I put one student from my group, he put one student from his group, and in the end, it worked amazing. The couple got married. The students. And a whole research starting on nonlinear optics based on silicon photonics. Amplifiers. Parametric amplifiers. Cones. You know, all of this started from nonlinear amplification.
Michal, what was the process or the buzz around the announcement behind the MacArthur announcement? How did that come about?
That was one of the most exciting moments of my life.
I was in Denmark visiting my family. I have family in Denmark. And then again, I get a phone call and the guy says, “Hello, this is Michal Lipson?” I said yes. “Are you sitting?” And I'm really, I almost hang up, because who ask you a question like that? Who doesn't identify? No, he said, “Are you alone? Are you sitting down?” And then immediately the guy started saying all my achievements in silicon photonics. So I guess they have experience with people thinking it's a prank. And then he told me that I won. I mean it was unreal. And it was, especially after everything that happened in the department, which people didn't know but I knew, it was an enormous, I wouldn't say validation, but even for myself, you know, I felt like, “Okay, it's over.” You know, it's... I can collect some of the fruits, you know. It's personally, meant the world to me to have a, how do you say, gushpanka [hechsher; literally, seal of approval]. Like a stamp.
It's a sign that you've been accepted, not just among a narrow group of your peers, but--
--in a much broader sense.
What did the MacArthur fellowship allow you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise? Either economically, because of your stature in the field, because of the recognition? In what ways—you know, when you're recognized at that level, in some ways, it can be a distraction, right? Because you have all of this attention that you didn't have before, that's obvious to me. But in what ways did it open up doors or create opportunities that might have been there otherwise?
I definitely remember a turning point. That it definitely—it was a turning point, but it was—I'm having a hard time answering because it was so strong. That I would say, you know, it's hard to say that if it wasn't there, if wouldn't have been—you know, wouldn't have happened, but the whole... You know, even the self, even the belief in myself, even. Everything changed. Like I have a little bit of a problem of you saying, “You were finally accepted.” Eh. I have lots of friends, but you know, honestly, I'll always be an outsider. There's no question about it.
But that goes back to even when you were eight years old.
Yeah. I mean, believe me, when people see me, I don't think they think I'm a physicist, and it's not, I mean it doesn't—But—and I don't have the body and appeal, I don't have that—but I was recognized, that's different. I wouldn't say accepted but recognized. And respected. That I felt. I felt, that I felt, completely.
But I was asking, Michal, more in the context of the research, right?
Did this allow you to pursue new research or collaborate with new people or be involved in new projects that might not have been available otherwise? Or no. If you were simply on your own trajectory, and this was a nice, I mean, an amazing recognition, but it didn't really fundamentally change anything in terms of your own research trajectory? That's my question.
I don't think it changed fundamentally the research direction. It gave me just more opportunities. By then I knew, if I wanted to do something, I would have done it. I would have-- But it has made my life so much easier. If I wanted a different direction, I could have gone. I mean I don't think... It opened doors in general. Widely. But I wouldn't say turned the research direction or...--
Well let's ask like this. What did you take on afterwards? What were your new projects that you looked at after the fellowship?
So, I became more and more involved in the nonlinear photonics. Which was very risky, I should say. And for sure, I wouldn't have done it at my pre-tenure, that's for sure, at that time, because I don't need to add risk to risk.
And why was it risky, Michal? What's so risky about nonlinear?
Well, because nonlinear at the time was considered kind of exotic because yes, if you take a huge laser and you pump on a material, you get something out of it. Why is it so interesting? I mean, there are interesting phenomena, but why is it interesting technologically? I mean, you need a huge laser to produce other light. Well, it turned out that the nonlinearities in silicon, because of the strong light coming from it, can be engineered so much that you can do it with a laser pointer. I mean, you could have nonlinear optics, which used to be kind of this huge, ultra-high-power lasers, you can do it with a battery. But at the time, I didn't know. So we were hoping, I mean that was always the beginning of the talk, but it was to go from that point to really the point of so efficient that you have a tiny, you know, you really make an impact on technology, that seemed far-fetched for a lot of people, but I loved it. I really loved it because it was a perfect applied physics. It had beautiful physics and very complicated, rich phenomena. And you could, you know, it had the promise that you could generate new lights and really kind of amplify light. It was an exciting time. But I agree that this was something I only did after I felt, when I felt secure.
Right. Michal, I want to ask, back to Cornell, tell me a little bit about the classes that you taught undergraduates? What were some of your favorite classes that you taught?
So I taught photonics and ENM, basically. Electromagnetism. I loved the photonics, and I still teach the class. And I'm about to teach in an hour. You know, people say, “Oh, you get tired of teaching the same class.” I don't. Because every time I teach, I find something else interesting, and the students even make me think. And it's always very relevant. I bring papers on what's going on. I don't know, it's exciting. And the students get excited. I like it. So these are the two, I'm very traditional, so it's kind of photonics classes, but it's always had been quite a few students that's always kind of big classes, relatively big classes for Cornell and Columbia.
And what about your graduate students at Cornell? Who were some of your most successful graduate students there?
I'm not going to answer that, because I have many students, that's not fair. But I try to stay in touch with them. But today, there are about—I counted—I want to say about 50 students.
And I have a very strong-- I miss them. I really miss them. Because you end up spending a lot of time together. And you know, many years together, thinking about new ideas and I love the brainstorming. And each one had their own little—they're so different from each other. From also very different backgrounds and from different places around the world, and so they think also differently, so the projects were very different. I can't, you know, I had many very, very successful, amazing students. And they very quickly, after a few years, they teach me. That's the whole point, right? That's the beauty of it.
[laugh] Michal, how did the transfer to Columbia, how did that play out? Were you looking to leave Cornell at some point?
Yeah. I felt that it was time for civilization. [laugh] I loved—I told Cornell, I don't want to play games. I don't want to play games in the sense that I didn't want a counteroffer. I told them, “Don't give me a counter-offer, because it's not about Cornell.” I loved Cornell.
And I liked Ithaca, too, but you know, there's a time for your life where you want, you know, I'm a people person, and I wanted to be surrounded by people.
And also, your kids were a little older at that point.
Yeah, although one of them was-- So my little one, he was 11 then. So he was going into middle school when we moved. So when I was looking, he was nine. That was, I was a little worried about that, but it ended up being very good for him, but I'm not sure about the kids so much. It was more about, I really wanted... I felt that Cornell was good, and it was a compromise I did to be at Cornell. But--
Did you specifically want to be in New York? Was that part of coming to Columbia?
Columbia was perfect for me because it was the big city, one of the top universities in big cities. It had Keren Bergman, who is, she is—I'm extremely close to her in research and personally. And the more I got to know Columbia, the more I felt, oh, I have so much in common with so many people, you know, research-wise. And it was the first time. I mean, I've never collaborated with so many people. And Cornell, maybe also this was a problem in retrospect with Cornell, that the buildings are very isolated. It's a very dispersed campus. It's not so easy to—you can collaborate, but it's not like here, that you bump into each other and you have to collaborate whether you want it or not, because you'll end up shopping together, you know. It's so dense here.
What were your impressions when you arrived at Columbia? In what ways was the department different from Cornell, and in what ways was it the same?
The department was smaller. But I loved it. The department is-- I loved it because everything was new. Everybody was extremely kind of supportive, and everybody wanted to collaborate and work together on this and on that. And it was very kind of exciting. Also funding-wise, because you're in a-- You know, anyone that lands in Kennedy or Newark, end up knocking on the door, and you end up—I ended up being very, very exposed to other types of research. So it was, research-wise, it was amazing. I mean I was very scared of the publication. And we are still working on it. But it ended up being not as a problem as I thought.
Did you take any graduate students with you? Were you able to do that?
Yes, they all came. Oh, it was such a dramatic thing. They all came. It was about ten, some graduated, but it was about ten students that came with a truck, and they had one—a few were here to receive the truck. Others were there kind of packing. And it was a team. I mean, I was busy with the move for two years, because I had to also make sure that everybody that was moving had the conditions to move. That they were moving with their family, they had the condition to move with their family. I felt like it was a full, like moving a whole community.
Michal, in what ways, given the move to Columbia, in what ways was this an opportunity to take on new research projects, or to you know, to work with new collaborators?
Yeah. That was key. I mean, I started working on neuroscience, because I met a fantastic colleague here. I started working on 2D material, which I haven't before, and that was Dmitri Basov, so from the physics department. I have a fantastic friend and colleague, a theorist person on quantum optics, Ana Asenjo. I mean, the list goes on and on. I mean, these are areas that I was not involved in before, and it completely kind of opened my eyes to it and... But it's all about people, you know? You end up in my opinion, you know, I want to work on something that I also relate to with the person, so we can think about and brainstorm and have good ideas.
And Michal, to bring the narrative up to the present, what are you working on these days and how are you managing with the pandemic in terms of being physically present with you and your graduate students and the people that you work with?
Yeah. This has been hard, you know. I sit in my office here, which there is no one here, but the students are downstairs working in the lab. And I'm not sure how I feel about them coming and say hi, so I don't even tell them I'm here, because I don't want us to interact too much. But we, I set up a system where we meet regularly, but not only about research. We meet in little groups for coffee, 20 minutes, so that there is a little bit of a sense, especially the young students that are coming in after the pandemic started. That's hard. They don't know anyone. So, to get in the group socially it has to be an effort. And I try to make that effort, but it's—it is what it is.
What's some of the most exciting research going on in the lab right now?
Let's see, so quite a—you know, of course, objectively speaking, it's amazing. So one of the works that we are doing is, we just wrapped it up, is—it sounds like it's not related to optics, but it's actually very related to optics—it's to transmit heat very, very efficiently from you to me. Like a long distance. And convert it to electricity. And the basic ideas for that, this heat transfer, it's based on seeing heat as light. Basically as wave. So a lot of heat, so we're doing quite a lot of, this is radiation-based cooling. That's the topic. Then we are doing, we have quite a lot of work now on phased rays. It's basically kind of lighter based on photonics. And it turns out that you can do some extreme kind of light manipulation with this phased ray. It's almost like you take your phase front, right, how light looks like, the wave, and you kind of break it in physical space. So that you can control the phase and the amplitude and the polarization. All the properties of light on the individual level. So, you end up with crazy phenomena, and also incredible applications. So I actually have a company on that, a lidar company, that started when we moved to Columbia. So, we're doing quite a lot of work on that. We're doing a lot of work on the nonlinear. Well, the whole battery thing was, we just published a year ago. So anyway, it's a lot of exciting things.
And in what ways is nonlinear less risky now than it was when you first started?
Oh. Okay, so I should say that now my dilemma is what to do with the commercialization of that. Because I have major industry, major industry, asking what's going to happen with that technology. So I'm going to need to make a decision on that. So on. So it's way past being exotic. Either I commercialize or someone else commercialize. So, we'll see.
And so, what has changed in technology and in industry that makes this a very different problem than when you first started?
Yeah. It's the need for communication inside computing systems. So, we used to have fibers just to communicate kind of long-distance. Now, optical communication is needed kind of between, like in GPU systems. And it all has to do with the fact that computing is exploding because of artificial intelligence. So, now you have computing systems that are basically only limited by how fast the memory can communicate with the GPU. So you need light for that. And it's not a little bit of communication. You need to communicate kinds of tens of terabytes per second. And that you can do with the nonlinear optics because nonlinear optics can give you many, many channels simultaneous. So, you have some enormous bandwidth. So anyway, that's kind of the application. It's data centers. It's computing.
Michal, now that we're right up to the present day, I want to ask you, for the last part of our conversation, I want to ask you sort of a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then we're going to look to the future a little bit. And so I want to go back both to your father and at MIT, the mentors who encouraged you to ask the big questions. To have that high impact, right? When you first started to think of yourself as a scientist who not only could ask those questions, but you could provide the answers to those questions, right? In what ways have those questions for you changed over the course of your career, and in what ways are you still fundamentally asking the same questions that you always have?
I think the only—I'm still asking very similar questions, I would say. It's always, what's the high impact? What's the basic question here? And that, I ask that often every day, because the students come with ideas and I have to ask them, “But why? Why would you want to work on that?” Right? I mean that's... the only difference is, is that I don't, there is no need for too much pragmatism. I care about the students' career. I don't worry about mine at all. So, it's all about whether they will get a publication out of it or, you know? It's about them now.
In what ways have your ideas outstripped technology? In other words, when have you needed industry and technology to catch up to what you have wanted to accomplish academically and in the lab?
So this was constant, actually, because I relied on cutting-edge publication. With technology and high lithography, we were always cutting edge, cutting edge. So I would say we always relied, and the fact is that only now after almost 20 years, we've demonstrated—maybe three years ago—we've demonstrated waveguides that are extremely low-loss, meaning that if you can propagate light for meters on a little chip. We couldn't have done it before because it was limited by really the processing. So we kept pushing the technology, but this was something that we had to go hand by hand.
The troubles that you've experienced as a woman in the field of course, it could be as if you're talking from many decades ago, but unfortunately not. You're only talking a relatively short time ago, right?
Right, right, right.
In what ways do you see science in general really making positive impact so that the next generation, your female graduate students, are not going to experience the difficulties that you had? Are you generally optimistic about the positive trajectory of inclusivity in science? Or do you see the same problems today that you were dealing with other the course of your career?
I think today, so honestly, I should say that there is not huge difference. That's the truth. But there is awareness. More awareness and what was considered, what people could do things that today if they would do, people would be scared, I would say. So, the awareness does make things a little better. But I think most of what I suffered from, and I think it still happens, is the implicit bias. Not out there, there was never an actual bias. It was more the small things. Like, “You're doing good?” Or “What did you say, honey?” Or you know, the demeaning or being ignored, like I gave the example, or little things that. And it's not so little. I mean, it's enough for me to feel very uncomfortable. “Oh let me give you an advice.” You know? I felt... It's hard, and these are, they're harder to address, because one could always claim that this is nothing to do with a woman. Maybe not always, but many times you could definitely make that argument—and that's very problematic—because you as a woman are always asked, “Oh, maybe I'm really not as good as I think.” So I would say for a woman, at least to be aware of it. Because you definitely don't want to believe any of this. However people treat you, I really believe in absolute truth of science and technology. If you really do good work, eventually it will catch up. I mean, you can't be in such a strong dissonance like what happened with the department. Eventually it catches up and everything fall into place. That's kind of what I believe.
I'll ask a happier question, since it's upsetting to hear that these are problems that are still, you think that have not changed dramatically since the beginning of your career. And that is, let's go back to the science. Given that you were essentially born in physics, right? Physics has always been with you from your father, even as you moved from country to country and struggled with other parts of your identity. And so I want to ask, coming from that very deep personal place of physics, what are some theories or concepts in physics that are close to you every day? That stay with you, that inform your research, that inform the way you see the world, that inform the kind of impact that you want to make in industry and in humanity in general? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah. In one word, oscillator. So dipole, dipole interaction, oscillators. These are general that go from solid state to quantum optics. And it's kind of large-scale phenomena correlation. So how does what I am doing right now is impacted by the rest of the world. So waveguide, waveguide interaction. So every-- So all of what we do, you can almost all, you can bring it back to that kind of basic physics. And that maps to disciplines that is everywhere. That's, for example, one person that I talk a lot about, kind of physics, several times a week we go for walks, and we just talked about physics, is my friend Ana Asenjo, who is a young physicist, and she is in quantum optics, but the phenomena, they translate between disciplines, because it's kind of general correlation, interaction between oscillators, kind of general phenomena.
And last question, Michal. Looking to the future. What excites you most personally in terms of your commitment to your graduate students and your fundamental care for their career, but for yourself? For the things that you want to do in your own research? What are the things that excite you most as you look to all of the exciting ways that technology will continue to develop, and how you can have an impact not just on those technological developments, but on the way that technology continues to improve the human condition?
So I'm actually right now-- I mean, I think this changes with every few months it changes. So you're asking, you are probing on a very specific moment right now. Right now I'm very excited about the nonlinear commercialization. Because it feels so transformational. It feels that that's kind of, we are at a cusp of-- Then people need so much bandwidth. They need just need information to be transmitted, and we have the technology to do that. I'm just excited about that, that it will become real and so fast. But you know, we see--
Which is to say that if I were to speak to you only a few months from now, you might be excited about something very different?
Yeah. Yeah. I know, I know. I have a friend that always tells me, finish my sentences, yes. And it will be this amazing thing. I don't know.
Which in itself is exciting, just because of all of the different things that you're involved with. Michal, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today.
Thank you for your questions. It was really a pleasure to think about.
Wonderful. Wonderful. Thank you so much.