Harnessing the Science of Light

Posted on Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Ksenia Dolgaleva

Meet Prof. Ksenia Dolgaleva, a world-class researcher, professor, and holder of a Canada Research Chair in Integrated Photonics.

In April 2015, University of Ottawa Professor Ksenia Dolgaleva was awarded the prestigious Canada Research Chair Tier 2 in Integrated Photonics. She has recently returned from her maternity leave to resume her work as a professor and researcher. The hardworking mother only took five months of maternity leave and had even continued working during that time. “It was doable in the beginning,” she describes, “because my baby spent a lot of time sleeping.” She is eager to move forward with her ambitious research in integrated photonics.

What exactly is integrated photonics? Traditionally, researchers who wish to study optical phenomena require an optical table for their experiments. This is a large table, upon which sits a laser source and an intricate series of lenses, mirrors and other components that guide and manipulate the light as it travels across the table. All of this equipment is very expensive and bulky and takes a long time to set up and align. “But now, imagine everything downsized to a 1cm x 1cm optical chip, with all the functionalities retained,” explains the professor. “This optical chip would contain a laser source and the equivalent of steering and detection equipment; all of this pre-designed, pre-fabricated and rigidly integrated. You can easily hold the chip, and do many tests with it. Basically, this is what we call integrated photonics. But the difference is, instead of finding tiny little mirrors and lenses on this chip, you’d find tiny dashes, or optical wave guides, which guide and steer light, similarly to the way wires conduct electricity.”

Professor Dolgaleva’s integrated photonics research will have applications in optical communication networks, which use signals imprinted in optical format. This technology has countless uses, from a remote control connecting to a TV, to submarine communication fibre links across the Atlantic Ocean. In simple terms, the present technology transmits information in the form of light, or optical pulses. However, the information is initially inputted in electronic format. On the receiving end, it is also processed, error-corrected, read and rerouted electronically. This creates unavoidable limitations for these networks due to the fundamentally limited bandwidth of electronic signals. Therefore, the thrust of research in which Ksenia is involved seeks to replace as many of these electronic functionalities as possible with optical signals. “All-optical signal processing is a very ambitious idea,” explains the professor. Ambitious indeed, as it could take optical communication to a whole new level.

Ksenia’s exciting career began at Moscow State University in Moscow, Russia, where she earned a diploma equivalent to a combined Bachelor and Master’s degree in Physics. She knew from the outset that she wanted to be a researcher and professor. She then moved to Rochester, New York to pursue a PhD in optics from the University of Rochester. Towards the end of her PhD, she was told that she should start thinking about applications for her research at the industrial level. “It was all Greek to me at that point because I was very focused on fundamental science, and I’m a physicist from head to toe,” laughs the professor. “Based on that suggestion, I got the necessary training to engage with industry. Integrated photonics is the perfect discipline to work in if you want to keep doing fundamental research, but also want to be interesting to industry.” Professor Dolgaleva took on a postdoctoral fellowship in engineering physics at the University of Toronto studying nonlinear optics (or light that has been manipulated) on a chip. She was also a postdoctoral fellow with Mitacs Elevate, a program focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry.

In 2013, Professor Dolgaleva joined the University of Ottawa as an assistant professor at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Her research is in two fields: the first is the aforementioned field of integrated photonics, and the second is the interaction of light and matter, or the way that molecules and atoms can interact with light and contribute to nonlinear optical phenomena. These are changes in the properties of light, such as a change in the light’s colour from infrared to green. Ksenia works extensively in this field, in parallel with her integrated photonics research. While studying at the University of Rochester, she made a very exciting discovery: she predicted, observed and recorded the way that small effects of surrounding matter on light, previously seen as insignificant by most researchers, could add up to a considerable effect when compounded, causing previously inexplicable changes in the  traveling light. Professor Dolgaleva authored the article “Observation of a microscopic cascaded contribution to the fifth-order nonlinear susceptibility” on this discovery. This publication has been cited numerous times and has left its mark in the field (read more here: http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.103.113902.)

Professor Dolgaleva is excited about the future of her research under this Chair. “I came to the University of Ottawa because both the government and the university support so much research in photonics.” She is motivated by the calibre of experts around her, listing accomplished researchers Trevor Hall, Karin Hinzer, Pierre Berini, Lora Ramunno, Robert Boyd, and Paul Corkum among her inspirations, as well as her younger colleagues Ebrahim Karimi and Jeff Lundeen. The University of Ottawa has become a world-class photonics research facility, thus attracting top-notch researchers.

For more information on Professor Ksenia Dolgaleva and her research group, visit their website.

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