Faculty Q &A: John Bowers

Photo of John Bowers

An Interview with John Bowers
ECE Professor & Fred Kavli Chair of Nanotechnology

Interviewed for the Fall 2013 ECE Current newsletter

Professor Bowers’ research interests are in energy efficiency and in the development of novel optoelectronic devices for the next generation of optical networks. These interests include silicon photonics and integrated circuits, optical switching, the design of quantum well structures for high speed light generation and detection, and the design of high speed time division multiplexed systems and devices. Prior to joining UCSB in 1987, Professor Bowers worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories on semiconductor lasers and photodetectors. Professor Bowers is Director of the Institute for Energy Efficiency and a member of the Technology Management Program (TMP).

Was there something specific that drew you to UCSB?

I always enjoyed teaching and when I was at Stanford as a postdoc I was in charge of all the new students that came in. It was really gratifying to see them quickly learn their subject and also just learn how to do research. After at Bell Laboratories, I missed that and there were not a lot of teaching opportunities, so that’s what drew me to UCSB.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the ECE Dept the past 26 years?

It has really changed a lot. When I arrived we had good students coming out but no big research programs. The research program has really grown and obviously the reputation of the department has grown a lot as well.

How does it feel to have received UCSB's highest honor of becoming the 2013 Faculty Research Lecturer?

It’s a great honor and I’m very lucky to receive it. The research is very important to me and I’ve focused my life on it the past 5 or 10 years. My research focuses on trying to transform photonics from the way it’s done today, which has been small foundries based on 3-5 materials, and transforming that industry towards being based on CMOS technology and silicon photonics. There are many companies and universities around the world focused on silicon photonics but our difference is that we integrate all the functions one needs particularly, including the laser.

Can you tell us more about the lecture?

My goal is to focus on the way photonics can change people’s lives and what’s in the future. We’ve seen tremendous change over the last 20 years. The whole Internet is based on fiber optics where it used to be that communications was very expensive but that has changed with fiber optics. You can now call long-distance and it’s the same as calling someone across the street. It has changed careers and it’s very exciting from the point of view of the Institute for Energy Efficiency because it’s far more efficient for us to load all our data on the cloud in these data centers and have them be made incredibly efficient, compared to our old desktop computers sitting in our office or home. Now, we have very efficient, low-power, handheld devices we can access that information from everywhere and it’s far more efficient. The goal of the Institute is to discover how do you make these data centers much more efficient.

Can you tell us about the not for profit Unite to Light corporation that you co-founded?

Unite to Light is an outgrowth of when Osei Darkwa came from Ghana Telecom University. He wanted to learn about the Institute of Energy Efficiency, which had just formed at that point. I told him about the great LED research going on here such as solar cell research and he said to me, “why don’t you do something good for the world?” I was sort of taken aback. I thought we were doing great work for the world. He said that, as a professor, he sees this big difference in the quality and success rate of students who come from Accra, the capital city where there is electricity, and other parts of the country where there isn’t electricity. His goal was to get lighting for everyone so we developed a light that we can now make for about $6. We’ve shipped 43,000 lights to about 60 countries around the world. There’s a group in Santa Barbara called ASK, African Schools for Kenya, and they brought a bunch of the lights to the school there and were selling them and the demand was incredibly strong. We need to do a much better job at distribution because the demand and need is there.

What advice would you give to undergraduate and grad students in ECE?

The main thing is to find your passion, something you really enjoy doing and that you personally find interesting and then be adaptable. Take fundamental courses here to get a broad base of understanding and that allow you to change your field of research as time goes on because what is important today is probably not going to be important 30 years from now.

How do you think alumni can best give back to UCSB?

I think the best way is to get involved and if alumni live locally, then it’s easy to get involved in mentoring. It’s important for students to learn how to do quantum mechanics to learn how to do circuit design, but also, to learn the things you need to be successful in business. They should take initiative and if they see an opportunity, or a need, to go ahead and develop it and exploit it. Don’t accept the world as it is today but change the world. As an engineer, you have a lot of skills and you can use those skills to make the world better, not just for those who are affluent and can afford it but also making the world socially a better place.

In your opinion, what can we as a department and university do to develop our success?

It’s important for the University to educate students in areas that the world is moving in, to communicate where the jobs are going to be and the skill set one needs to be successful in those. Too often, I think that connection is not made on freshmen when they’re choosing what area to go into, but it’s only when they’re about to graduate that this becomes imperative. These days bioengineering is a great direction of research and energy efficiency is an important new direction for the country and our students. It’s very important that we continue to evolve and not become stagnant. Do the basics, quantum mechanics in our case, and solid state physics, but also involve people in research that are in areas that industries want to hire in the future.