Introducing Claire Gmachl: New Eyes for the World, or How to Make Life Easier through Electrical Engineering

bridges vol. 4, December 2004 / News from the Network

by Jutta Kern

Gmachl_Claire_captionPopular Science, a magazine reaching some eight million readers, recently named Claire Gmachl as one of the "Brilliant 10." This recognition goes out to young researchers whose work promises exceptional research results that will change our lives. Gmachl, associate professor of Electrical Engineering at Princeton University in New Jersey since 2003, was specifically recognized for her work on quantum-cascade lasers, devices that she developed during her work with Bell Labs beginning in 1996.

Being just about two millimeters in length and less than one-tenth the thickness of a human hair, these devices can be utilized for environmental, medical or security applications. Whether detecting traces of explosives at airports, measuring toxic emissions or allowing patients to take their medical respiratory masks home with them, Gmachl's quantum-cascade lasers clearly prove that her focus as a university professor is on "inventing things that help make life easier."


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}Gmachl's ingenious, incredibly small devices are the first to be able to detect a variety of chemicals. While they promise a wide range of usability, Professor Gmachl points out that, for now, the quantum-cascade lasers are "boutique items, still." At the top of her research agenda, therefore, is the task of turning laser haute couture into prêt-à-porter devices. "The challenge," Claire Gmachl explains, in discussing the problems she is currently concerned with, "is to make them as simple as smoke detectors while guaranteeing high quality and precision quality."
To Claire Gmachl, excellence seems to be second nature. Her Ph.D. graduation ceremony was conducted under the auspices of the Austrian president in recognition of Gmachl's continuously outstanding performance from high school through university. Among the numerous scientific awards she has already received are the Christian Doppler Award, the Snell Premium and the Outstanding Performer Award. Nevertheless Gmachl feels that for her it has always been a "natural thing" to do what she is doing, because she has always enjoyed it. While her three siblings all followed their parents into the hospitality business in Salzburg, Austria, Claire Gmachl has shown a sustained interest in science and technology since her early years. "Where talent calls, one needs to follow," her parents said and supported her university studies.
Maybe because she has taken so much joy in the sciences herself, one of Gmachl's main goals as a university professor is to create an increased interest in science and technology among students. U.S. undergraduate educational requirements oblige every student to take engineering courses, and her course "New Eyes for the World—A Hands-On Optical Engineering Course" may well serve that end. And, Gmachl points out, explaining her research to a nonexpert audience helps her to put things into perspective regarding the question "What is the impact on society?"
Claire Gmachl received her academic credentials from Austrian universities. She went to Innsbruck for her master's studies and followed the advice of her high school teacher to choose physics in addition to mathematics. Soon her interest turned towards physics, beginning with theoretical but moving eventually to applied physics. For her doctoral studies she went to Munich, but followed her advisor Erich Gornik to Vienna when he accepted a position at the University of Technology. "The Austrian university system trains excellent people," Gmachl says, "but if I could change something, I would wish for more interchangeability with the U.S. system. If a student enjoyed an excellent undergraduate education in the United States, he or she should be able to engage in Ph.D. studies in Austria or Europe in the same way as in the United States."
Reflecting on career perspectives, Gmachl says, "Austria, unfortunately, has too few positions to offer to employ all of the excellent graduates. Because openings are rare, serendipity is often the master of an academic career. One needs to be at exactly the right point in one's academic career when a position opens up; otherwise one has to wait several years before the next opportunity comes up."
Before Gmachl accepted her current position at Princeton University, she worked for eight years with Bell Labs in New Jersey, where she started as a Post Doc after her graduation in 1996. She remembers from that time spent conducting industry-based research a strong and positive team orientation, as compared to the more individualistic and competitive nature of university research. "Companies set common goals for everyone to focus on, while in academia one has to be more of an entrepreneur, and this increases competition." On the other hand, at universities, Gmachl explains, "As long as you have the funding, you can start a new field of research as you please. There's much more freedom for your ideas, but there's also more pressure to raise money to realize them."
And realizing her ideas in mid-infrared photonics is what Professor Gmachl is looking forward to in the near future. "I have been with Princeton for one year—usually it takes five to six years to establish a new research unit. Now it's about graduating the first cohort of good students and positioning the new research group on solid financial ground. We'll see what the confounded seventh year will bring!"

Claire Gmachl still maintains strong contacts with colleagues in Austria and participates regularly in Austrian scientific events. "Almost all the Austrians I know in the United States would like to eventually return to Austria, at least for retirement," Gmachl reports. "The quality of life is just better in Austria—the culture is more relaxed. It depends solely on me how much stress I am putting on myself, but it's nevertheless the overall culture surrounding you that defines what level of performance is regarded as desirable."