When Peter Delfyett (pictured left) was in the first grade, his father took him to see the science fiction movie Journey to the Beginning of Time, a story about four boys who traveled back to the age of dinosaurs. The experience opened the younger Delfyett's mind to the wonders of science. "Science encouraged curiosity, to ask questions. Rather than being intimidated by science, I thought as a kid, 'Here's another opportunity to play,'" Delfyett says.
Delfyett, a professor of optics and university trustee chair at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, continues to expand his curiosity by working with lasers that could serve as the backbone of future telecommunication networks. His dedication to research has garnered him a number of awards, including the National Science Foundation's Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
Delfyett was born and raised in Queens, New York, where, in addition to excelling in high school math and science, he played the drums and basketball, and ran track. After high school he considered entering law or medicine, but he knew that as an engineer he could be at the forefront of emerging technologies. He entered City College of New York in Manhattan as an engineering major and soon found a mentor, Robert Alfano, inventor of the ultrafast laser. "He took me to see this big laser and said, 'Did you see that flash? That lasted just one-trillionth of a second.' I knew I wanted to get into that," Delfyett says.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1981, Delfyett received a master's from the University of Rochester in 1984 and returned to study under Alfano at the Graduate Center for the City University of New York. "I admired him so much," says Delfyett. "He taught that if you had an interesting idea, try it. Don't be afraid to go out on a limb, to go against the standard way of thinking."
After finishing his doctorate in 1988, Delfyett joined Bell Communications Research in Red Bank, New Jersey. "It was a dream come true, working on ultrafast photonics in the best research lab in the country," he says. But after five years of doing the work he enjoyed, support for industrial fundamental materials and device research dried up. Due to an economic slump in the early to mid 1990s, many companies with basic research labs were under increasing pressure from Wall Street to improve profits. The easiest way for companies to address the issue was to reduce research expenditures.
The World of Academia
Looking forward to exploring academia, Delfyett joined the University of Central Florida in 1993. "In academia, you have more freedom to explore unique ideas, whereas in industry your research is very focused on your business core," Delfyett explains. "And if you discover some great new thing and patent it, you can encourage students to spin off a little company on the side, and for sure you can't do that as an industrial research scientist. Also, as a professor, your students are young and excited, and that keeps you young and excited. I really love to teach."
Delfyett now directs 15 students in six labs developing new lasers from semiconductors, generating pulses trillionths to quadrillionths of a second long. Delfyett's groups use "laser chips about the size of a grain of sand to transmit as much information as we can from point A to point B." His team holds the record for shortest and most intense pulse from a semiconductor laser diode and recently invented a chip that can transmit more than 1 trillion bits or terabit of information per second, nearly 200,000 compressed digital TV channels. Delfyett hopes this technology will allow computers to communicate with each other faster in the future.
Staying the Course
Thoroughly at home in scholastic surroundings, Delfyett recalls a number of challenges in his professional career and reminds his students to stay the course no matter what.
When he first went to the University of Rochester, he was unaware that his background as an electrical engineer meant he could not switch to optics, as he wanted. After he received his master's degree, many told him to stay with electrical engineering and go into semiconductors or superconductors instead of optics, since switching fields could mean starting all over again.
"That was a very tough decision, but I felt what was most important was for me to be true to myself, my dream, and to not be swayed by the quick fix," he says. "It's better in the long term to not look back on your life and wish what could have been. Never giving up has been my guiding light."
Delfyett also shares how to handle discouraging comments from colleagues. "If you're in an intimidating work environment and someone tells you, 'My gosh, why would you want to work on that project, it will never work,' don't get turned off," he says. "Listen carefully. This person is not trying to hurt your feelings. He's telling you this is a challenge in the field, precisely the things you want to work on to make your vision a reality. Turn a negative into a positive."
Shining a Light on the Next Generation
Delfyett knows minorities don't have many role models in science and engineering, so since his graduate school days, he has brought lasers with him to public schools to enlighten students about science. "With junior high school, it's critical to hook kids in science, since so many lose interest in the eighth grade and it's hard to get them back," he explains. "I always felt it was important to show [that] role models are out there, to expose them to the fact that pursuing a career in math and science was possible, it could pay you decently, and you could still be cool."
Delfyett hopes his efforts will encourage many students to color to consider entering these fields. He admits becoming a scientist takes a lot of work, but it is made easier if the person is passionate about his job. "When we have a job we truly love, it's like play."
Charles Choi is a freelance writer and may be reached at email@example.com.