In high school, Jelena considered becoming a professor of math or physics. Later, as she pursued her PhD, she decided that her career should include both research and teaching. Jelena leads the Nanoscale and Quantum Photonics lab, and teaches a new course for undergraduates, Introductory Engineering Electromagnetics, EE 42.
What made you decide to be a professor, and what made you want to be at Stanford?
I always loved to teach, in part inspired by my father who was a high school philosophy professor. When I was in high school, I thought about becoming a math or physics professor. Then as a student at Caltech, I got seriously involved in teaching and decided that I would enjoy a career than involves teaching in addition to research.
As for ending up at Stanford: when I was offered a faculty job here, I had already spent about half a year in the Ginzton Lab as a postdoc in the group of professor Yoshi Yamamoto (now emeritus). I felt comfortable staying here, since I already knew the place and people, including great students, some of whom ended up working with me later.
How did you choose your field of research?
When I started grad school, I wanted to work on information theory and coding, because I had previously done a little bit of research in that area at the University of Sydney and even published some papers.
Then I met my former PhD advisor Axel Scherer during our EE PhD quals, and he made an offer for me to work in his group.
He encouraged me by saying that since I was already at a place where I could do experiments, I should at least try some experimental work. I knew nothing about photonic crystals, nanophotonics, and nanofabrication, but I thought that learning about all of that would keep me busy for the next 5 years, so I decided to try (and didn't regret it).
Who has influenced your work and why.
Many people, but most importantly my family – my parents and my brother, who brought me up thinking that I could do anything and who always supported my rebellious attitude and critical thinking, which is very important for who I am today. And then a lot of amazing teachers starting with middle school, who made me love math and physics, and helped me see creativity and beauty in it. Even today, my work is strongly influenced by the people around me – such as my group members with whom I debate and brainstorm all the time, my colleagues, and even my kids and their constant questions and observations.
Briefly explain a project you are currently working on.
I'll pick two large and relatively new projects in my group that we are excited about.
One is on inverse design of nanophotonic devices, where we let a computer perform physics guided search of the full parameter space of fabricable photonic devices. So far, for every problem we addressed, we have ended up with better designs (in terms of efficiency, robustness, footprint) than conventional solutions. This work builds on the PhD thesis of my former student Jesse Lu (now at Google). What started as a side project that only involved Jesse and myself, and our initial publication in 2013, in the meantime grew into a major project involving around half of my group.
Another area that we are very excited about is building attojoule optoelectronics and quantum photonic devices using color centers in diamond and silicon carbide.
What advice do you have for new EE students?
Take advantage of being here and explore a couple of areas before deciding what you would want to do for PhD. Sometimes there may be better choices for you than your favorite research direction at the time when you arrive. Don't shy away from trying experiments if you don't have experimental experience from your undergrad education – most people don't. And even after committing to a certain group, continue exploring and learning – talk with people, establish collaborations, think about new research directions. And also take advantage of trying different things (such as teaching or internships) which would help you figure out the right career path for you.