Kristina Johnson is dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering. Previously she was director of the NSF/ERC Optoelectronics Computing Systems Center at the University of Colorado, where she also cofounded the Colorado Advanced Technology Institute Center of Excellence in Optoelectronics. She has founded two spin-off companies: ColorLink, which makes color components for high-definition televisions, and KAJ, which is an intellectual-property licensing company assisting start-up firms. Johnson has bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University, and has conducted research at IBM and Trinity College, Ireland.
WDM: What were your personal goals in leaving the University of Colorado to take the position as dean of Duke's School of Engineering?
Johnson: I really enjoyed Colorado, and learned a lot as director of the National Science Foundation's Engineering Research Center for Optoelectronics Computing Systems, which focused on interdisciplinary research and education. As dean, you have an opportunity to influence the direction of research at a broader, more extensive level, and to lead an organization where the barriers between departments can be softened, if not melted a bit.
Duke is a great university and the dean position gives me an opportunity to apply the leadership skills developed at Colorado to really push a new way of thinking about engineering education. We are hiring into strategic research initiatives that are supported by core disciplines across the departments. This is new, to my knowledge, and one of the key initiatives is photonics and communication systems.
WDM: The Fitzpatrick Center for Advanced Photonics and Communications Systems is under construction on campus. How do you plan for it to contribute to developments in optical communications and what support have you had from the telecommunications industry?
Johnson: Industry relies on applications and users, as well as access to a skilled workforce. We plan to be a testbed for disruptive technologies that will require high-bandwidth applications, while at the same time creating a unique workforce through our professional master's and Ph.D. programs. The master's program is a 10-month, hands-on course that has four to five core courses and choices of five electives in the five center laboratories: Optical Networking, Biophotonics, Information Spaces, Quantum Optoelectronics, and Optoelectronic Component Integration.
We have been fortunate to garner the support of industry leaders like Nortel Networks, Corning, ONI, and Lucent Technologies, along with startups like Optxcon, Xtalight, Distant Focus, and others.
WDM: Recent reports indicate a real drop in venture funding of startups and in IPOs. What impact does this risk avoidance have in academia, where many professors and students are either participating in or would like to join startups?
Johnson: Clearly there is a settling going on in the industry. VCs [venture capitalists] are being more cautious and now one is asked questions about anticipated profitability, etc. I think this does hurt startups that seek true VC backing.
At the same time, I think you will see academics turning back to the ways we started companies in the 1980s—through SBIR, STTR, and ATP opportunities, while the applications that require high bandwidth continue to be developed. I am optimistic that there are great companies still to be spawned that will harness the light fantastic, and that they will be the companies that work effortlessly across material science, device physics, systems optimization, and manufacturing disciplines, and find the unique applications that require this bandwidth.
WDM: How do you balance the tension between the traditions of university scholarship and peer-reviewed publication of research and the drive to create technology that can be patented for commercial use?
Johnson: Great question! Each faculty member needs to find that out for herself or himself. Most of my patents have been licensed, many are incorporated into products. That is really gratifying for me and my students who are coinventors and inventors on these patents. At the same time, I find enjoyment in pure academic research. However, I like to think it is good if research produces value in the way of jobs and opportunities for others. So personally, if I have a choice, I would probably focus on application research. However, we need both at a university.
WDM: Given the variety of components, systems, and software involved, many people have come to the optical communications industry from very diverse fields. As a university discipline, how should students think about their future and how should companies evaluate graduates?
Johnson: The role of the university is to create and disseminate a core foundation of knowledge, understanding, and competency in a field. We do this with our professional master's and academic Ph.D. programs. The required five courses give breadth in photonics and optics, while the five electives in a particular laboratory give depth of knowledge.
WDM: The United States is often criticized for not interesting students in science or engineering. Many foreign students attend top U.S. schools in these fields. What is the implication for the future and what policies do you think will help keep the U.S. technology base strong?
Johnson: Our goal is to provide the very best career opportunities for all our students. My concern is that fewer students are going into engineering, at a time when we need to continue to invest in the research that creates the disruptive technology that fuels our economy. We must tap underutilized resources in this country. What started out as a moral obligation is now a national imperative—we need diversity in our workforce to bring new thinking to the field, and to continue to grow the quality and quantity of our engineering resources.
If foreign students come to the United States and stay, that is a great thing for this country. If they return to their native country, that is also great for their country and ours, as they become ambassadors for our universities and country, too.
WDM: Finally, do you have time for research? What emerging technologies in optical communications interest you personally? Which ones, however esoteric, do you think will have a long-term impact?
Johnson: We are just bringing on line a new research lab led by my colleague David Brady, director of the Fitzpatrick Center at Duke. He is terrific, and we are going to be working on distributed sensor networks, liquid and solid photonic crystals, novel imaging devices using VCSELS [vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers], and I have a group continuing my work on liquid crystals on silicon microdisplays.
My focus is on the school and the Fitzpatrick Center, but I have to have fun, too! In fact, the application of my own research is aimed at producing a low-cost, high-volume, high-performance WDM switch.