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#FacesofPhotonics: Ultrafast Spectroscopy Research Assistant Hemang Jani

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Jani in his lab
Meet this week's SPIE Faces of Photonics feature, Hemang Jani. Hemang is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Physics at the University of Alabama, Huntsville (UAH). He was born in India and is now working towards a Ph.D. in Optical Science and Engineering.

Most of his time is spent in the Precision Ultrafast Light Sciences (PULS) group, but he is also a dedicated member of the SPIE Student Chapter at his university. In fact, he's the the vice president!

Hemang attended SPIE Photonics West 2018 to present in the Ultrafast Phenomena and Nanophotonics conference. You can read his paper, "Femtosecond pump-probe study of negative electron affinity GaAs/AlGaAs photocathodes", on the SPIE Digital Library.

Enjoy the interview!

1. How did you become interested in the optics and photonics field? Was there a particular person who inspired you?

My interest in optics and photonics has its roots in curiosities conceived during my undergraduate studies in physics. Fundamental studies, like light matter interaction and charge dynamics in solids, were limited to textbooks and complex equations. Of course, this encouraged me to use the power of imagination when it came to the subatomic world. However, in order to gain a deeper understanding of these subjects, I started my journey to the USA, and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Optical Science and Engineering. Now, I am working with femtosecond lasers to resolve some of the processes happening at the atomic scale.

EMPOWERING THE PUPIL: Jani and Dr. Lingze Duan 

Rather than inspiring, I would say my adviser, Dr. Lingze Duan, empowered me. He gave me complete freedom, from day one, to handle state-of-the-art lab equipment and to design and build complex optics experiments. The hands-on experience I have gained thus far has given me a lot of confidence in the field of ultrafast optics, and has given me the tools to satisfy my fundamental curiosities.

2. Describe a memorable moment from your involvement with SPIE.

I was very fortunate to attend Congressional Visits Day last April, jointly organized by the National Photonics Initiative, SPIE, and OSA. This event had a huge impact on my understanding of the future of science. Optics and photonics are enabling technologies that have the potential to shape the lives of future generations, but the right science policy at the right time is crucial for advancement. 

During Congressional Visits Day, presentations were given by science policy experts and lobbyists to help visitors like myself gain a broader understanding of the federal budget and appropriations, and how they affect various funding agencies.

CHANGE-MAKER: Jani poses in front of the U.S. Capitol Building

When I arrived, I joined a team of experts who had previous experience participating in events like this, and who knew how to communicate the importance of optics and photonics research to the lawmakers. We visited the offices of Senators and Representatives from Alabama, New Mexico, and Illinois. Throughout the day, I learned how to effectively conduct a balanced congressional visit. Not only did my team oppose the proposed FY 2018 funding cuts, but we also asked for support and more federal funding, by highlighting the critical role that optics and photonics technologies play in issues of national priorities.

ADVOCACY IN ACTION: University of New Mexico Professor Steven Brueck, Jani, and
Argonne National Laboratory researcher Lahsen Assoufid, pose outside of New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich's office

By attending events like Congressional Visit Day, I am convinced that the best way to sustain fundamental research is to directly work with lawmakers and help them shape policies to secure more federal funding for research. This is vital for future innovation. In just one day of congressional visits, we were able to convince many lawmakers of the impact that optics and photonics has on society. Working with the government, we will make a permanent place for optics on the Hill!

3. Share the story of your favorite outreach or volunteer experience. 

The inherent drive to engage with science entails seeking answers to the fundamental questions surrounding us, and effectively communicating that work with others. As Einstein famously said, “If Science, like Art, is to perform its mission totally and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially, but with their inner meaning, into the consciousness of people.”

THROUGH THE LOOKING LENS: Jani interacts with the kids at a local STEM fair

In that spirit, my main effort has always been to get involved in outreach and to showcase the fun of optics in my community. The Society of Optics Students, the OSA/SPIE UAH Student Chapter, and the Huntsville Electro-Optical Society offered various optics demonstrations as a part of a STEM fair organized by local schools.

We demonstrated how to make a telescope by using simple magnifiers and objective lenses, and we demonstrated positive and negative lenses, and the concept of polarized light in a hands-on, interactive manner, primarily targeting the younger crowd. I really enjoyed interacting with the kids: they asked questions with the utmost curiosity, and I enjoyed coming up with the simplest possible explanations for answers. That kind of outreach and teaching feels wonderful.

SEE YOUR FUTURE: Jani demonstrates an optical telescope
at a local science fair

4. Explain your current research or what you do at your job. How does your work impact society?

My research is on the experimental side. I am working on pump probe spectroscopy experiments, which is the simplest experimental technique used to study ultrafast carrier dynamics. Basically, in these experiments, a pump pulse excites a sample and induces changes in it, which are then measured using a time-delayed probe pulse. It is like the probe pulse is taking snapshots of these fast processes at different times. The time scale is generally in the picosecond or femtosecond range.

DOPE SCIENCE: Jani and Duan analyzing 
their latest experiment
More specifically, in my current research we use femtosecond lasers to study ultrafast carrier dynamics in gradient-doped negative electron affinity photocathodes. These uniquely doped photocathodes have applications in next-generation electron accelerators, ocean explorations, image intensifier tubes, and so on. Fundamental study of carrier dynamics--how electrons walk!--in these devices not only lends insight into the underlying physics, but also helps device designers optimize various parameters.

5. What book has impacted your professional life the most? Your personal life? Why?

I would say The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner has impacted me the most, both professionally and personally. This book consists of two essays, an original essay by Abraham Flexner from 1939, who was the founding director of Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, and a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the current director of the same institute. Although both essays are almost a century apart, the key message that both authors convey is the power of curiosity-driven research, and the need for more freedom to pursue fundamental research.

For example, in 2018, I attended SPIE Photonics West and saw firsthand how Einstein's 1917 fundamental research on quantum theory of radiation, laying foundations for the laser, has launched a present day, multi-billion-dollar industry.

FACE OF PHOTONICS: Hemang attends SPIE Photonics West

The power of free thinking helps you to persevere in your life with little worry of immediate outcome. I would say this approach has helped me a lot to enjoy every stage of my personal and professional life.

6. What is your advice to others in the STEM community?

Attending Congressional Visits Day and various technical conferences, I have determined that we as scientists must play multiple roles: experts, advisers, and advocates. Our work is not only to make long-term contributions to the advancement of optics and photonics technologies, but also to act as a bridge between the scientific community and society in order to prepare them for the next technological revolution orchestrated by LIGHT!!

SPIE’s #FacesofPhotonics social media campaign connects SPIE members in the global optics, photonics, and STEM communities. It serves to highlight similarities, celebrate differences, and foster a space where conversation and community can thrive.

Follow along with past and present stories on SPIE social media channels:

Or search #FacesofPhotonics on your favorite social network!


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