Following his curiosity and improving medical technology
Frank Wise says the joke around Cornell Engineering’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics is that the term “applied Physics” is written with a lowercase “a” and an uppercase “P” to better reflect the reality within the school. Wise, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Engineering, says, “first and foremost around here, we do good Physics. If we’re lucky we’ll find applications; if we’re really lucky we’ll find human health applications and help people.”
By his own yardstick, Wise has gotten really lucky. Ten years ago he became interested in the problem of femtosecond laser pulse generation. Wise wanted to make a device that could create laser pulses just millionths of a billionth of a second long AND be small enough to be useful outside of the lab. He saw many potential uses in the field of human health if he and his collaborators could make a small device capable of generating femtosecond laser pulses. “In this country alone there are 10,000 people a day who have cataract surgery,” says Wise. “This technology could have a role in those operations and would also be compatible with endoscopy, so there are many possible health applications.”
But dreaming of something and actually building it are two very different things. “It’s pretty complicated, but what it really comes down to is solving some rarified differential equations,” says Wise. “All of the old fiber lasers had to have special components that would make the blue wavelength portion of the light go faster than the red wavelength portion. We showed that it is possible to make pulses where red is faster than blue the whole time.”
Wise and his graduate students were able to turn the technical problem into a set of calculus problems. The calculus problems had several solutions and the trick for Wise and the members of his lab was finding a way to implement those solutions in a way that would work in the real world.
They succeeded. Wise now has several patents, representing the various practical solutions to the problems. One solution to those differential equations has led to a small device—less than 17 inches long and weighing far less than current femtosecond laser pulse generators. “The device based on this technology,” says Wise as he holds a small coil of fiber optic cable and some hardware in his hand, “has a number of practical uses. We are very excited about the possibilities. It is one hundred times as powerful as the technology we hope it will replace—and it is smaller.” Wise hopes this new laser will find a place in operating rooms around the world.
As a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Wise had no inkling that his future would involve anything like lasers. “I was an athlete in high school,” says Wise. “I never really had much encouragement to be studious. But then I went to Princeton and I was surrounded by people who valued hard work and academic success. I was really overmatched academically my first two years, but I managed to survive and then, slowly, I worked a lot harder and I got a lot better. My years at Princeton shaped me and made me who I am.”
After earning his B.S. in engineering physics from Princeton in 1980, Wise went on the get a Master’s in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1982. He worked for a while at Bell Laboratories, and then came to Cornell where he earned both a Master’s and a Ph.D. in applied physics. “I was educated in four great places,” says Wise. “Princeton gave me a deep knowledge of the concepts and then Berkeley and Bell Labs gave me the practical skills I needed. As a grad student at Cornell I got to work on both.”
As a professor at Cornell, Wise’s work has had two threads running through it: light and semiconductor materials. But now he finds himself at a point in his research career where his next project is not yet obvious to him. “I have been making fiber lasers for ten years with some great success, but I know I will not be doing this five years from now,” says Wise. “I am not sure what comes next—it’ll probably be something to do with application-oriented optics and nanostructured materials, but I just cannot say. To be honest, I’d rather take my chances and follow my interests than keep doing the same thing for no good reason.”
This willingness to follow wherever his curiosity leads has worked out well for Frank Wise so far. He has been able to delve into some basic Physics questions and at the same time create useful applications that just might help millions of people. “The thing I like about this job is I get to follow my interests,” says Wise. “If I started a company, I would have to give up a lot of things I am not willing to give up. I have fascinating collaborations here at Cornell because I can go to coffee with someone and we can talk about our research and see if there is common ground. It just seems to happen organically so often here. And the students here are so strong—without the students in my lab, I’d have nothing. They really make me look good. Our ideas bubble up out of our group discussions.”
Whatever it is Frank Wise decides to explore next, you can bet it will be some good Physics, (with some possible applications, as well.)