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Science meets innovation at Stanford Photonics Research Center

By Joe McEntee

It’s 50 years since the birth of the laser and to mark the imminent anniversary will be cranking up its coverage of photonic science, technologies and applications over the coming weeks.

For starters, there’s our latest video exclusive, a vox pop with faculty and students at the Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC), part of Stanford University in California and home to one of largest photonics research programmes in the US.

SPRC’s Ginzton Laboratory is the focal point for that programme and an interdisciplinary research team that comprises around 40 professors and 200 graduate students and postdocs. Theirs is a wide-ranging brief – SPRC working groups span information technology, telecommunications, integrated photonics, microscopy, neuroscience and solar cells – though with a common objective: to partner with industry to bring innovative photonic technologies to market.

With innovation a defining metric, a sizeable slice of SPRC’s activity comprises contract research funded by industry. The centre has 20+ commercial partners, among them the likes of SONY, Agilent Technologies, Lockheed Martin and NTT Communications.

Partnership is the key word here. The affiliates don’t just give their name to SPRC or sponsor a meeting, they actively support the research programme. Tom Baer, executive director of SPRC, reckons the affiliates are a “unique interface” between industry and the science and engineering taught at Stanford.

“SPRC provides the opportunity for students to work closely with our [industry] affiliates…and helps the students become exposed to scientific and technical problems that are current and relevant to the commercial sector,” he told

Equally significant, the SPRC reflects the research culture at Stanford, which has been cross-disciplinary for many decades. And that multidisciplinary effort is more than just a bunch of people from different disciplines working together, it’s about nurturing teams of “multidisciplinarians”.

“You really need to encourage the physicists to learn the biology, the engineers to learn the chemistry and so on,” Baer explained. “Something I instill in SPRC students from the off is that the more unique fields of enquiry you have knowledge of, the more you become unique in the eyes of your employers.”

• Our filming project at SPRC’s Ginzton Laboratory was a one-day excursion to the cutting edge of photonics. If you want to learn more, be sure to check out our other exclusive video interviews with Stanford physicists Steven Block (on single-molecule biophysics) and Phil Bucksbaum (on the world’s brightest X-ray source).

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