Twisting Light to Speed Up Data

Alan Willner of the University of Southern California is the recipient of the Thomas Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering Achievement. Willner’s advances in the field of electrical engineering have made him a foremost scholar in the areas of optics, photonics, and high-speed optical networks. This medal recognizes his achievements as a transformational scientist who has significantly advanced his field of work.

Using his knowledge of optics and photonics, Willner is developing ways for data to move even faster as it streams through high-speed optical networks around the globe. One of his recent projects demonstrated that multiple twisted beams of light could be combined to transmit data thousands of times faster than consumer broadband Internet connections.

Willner earned his BA from Yeshiva University in 1982 and enrolled at Columbia Engineering with the intent of using his master’s degree to pursue a career as a patent lawyer. Under the guidance of Professor Richard Osgood, he changed the scope of his academic focus and applied to the PhD program at Columbia Engineering instead. In 1985, Willner won the Armstrong Memorial Award, given to the highestranking MS student in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He earned his PhD in 1988.

After he completed his doctoral work in laser-controlled photochemical etching of semiconductors for electrooptical devices, Willner went to work for AT&T Bell Laboratories and then Bell Communications Research. He later co-founded Phaethon Communications, whose technology was acquired by Teraxion and is used in telecommunication systems worldwide. Willner has been a visiting professor at Columbia University, the University College London, and the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 1992, he joined the faculty at the University of Southern California, where he is the Steven and Kathryn Sample Chaired Professor of Engineering in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering.

Because of his pioneering research and professional leadership, Willner is a member of the U.S. Army Science Board and has served on many scientific advisory boards. Last year, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, a prestigious honor. He also is a fellow of the UK Royal Academy of Engineering; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the IEEE; the National Academy of Inventors; the Optical Society (OSA); and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

—By Maggie Hughes

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