Engineering light: bringing creativity to electronic engineering
Dr Lau Kei May (Croucher Senior Research Fellowship, 2008) is the Fang Professor of Engineering at the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering and Senior Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). Lau is well known for her work in compound semiconductor materials and devices and is one of the few eminent female engineering research academics working in Hong Kong.
“I always tell my students it is easier to be an outstanding engineer than a star athlete or musician but you still need creativity and dedication,” Lau says.
Born in Hong Kong, Lau joined her older brothers after finishing high school at the University of Minnesota, though her path to engineering turned out to be a convoluted one.
Physics to engineering
As an 18-year old, Lau had no idea what she wanted to do and started studying for a chemistry major but swapped to architecture, only to find she was not as talented at drawing as her classmates. She finally settled on physics and received B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, in 1976 and 1977. After her masters, she chose to study electrical engineering at Rice University, Houston, Texas, for her Ph.D. It was a decision that defined her future career. Lau chose to study semiconductors, a research area that is essentially just applied physics.
“It was an advantage having a physics background and I could fill in the gaps in my knowledge of engineering with self-study,” she says and thinks that the subject offers a strong career choice for young people.
“When young women tell me they wish to do something more creative than engineering, like being a fashion designer, I tell them to watch the Oscars ceremony on TV. The fancy gowns worn by the stars have hardly changed in 10 years but look at the differences in their smartphones over the same period. Instead of combining artistic talent with creativity, one combines learned scientific knowledge with creativity to be a good engineer,” she says.
From 1980 to 1982, she was a Senior Engineer at M/A-COM Gallium Arsenide Products, Inc., where she worked on epitaxial growth of gallium arsenide for microwave components and development of mm-wave devices.
“I learned a lot in solving real-world engineering problems while working on product development projects for the U.S. government but I didn’t like it that much because there weren’t many opportunities for me to research issues I was interested in exploring,” she says.
In 1982, she joined the faculty of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she became a full professor in 1993 and pursued research.
“The most challenging part of undertaking academic research is choosing topics - it’s like buying stocks, you need the vision to choose a problem that you are going to ‘invest’ your career in, that will matter years down the road,” she says and points to her research into light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as a good example of this.
“I started to work on these semiconductor materials about 20 years ago when a new material came out that created blue light,” she says.
In 2014 the Nobel prize for physics was awarded for blue LED innovation using the difficult-to-handle semiconductor gallium nitride to create efficient blue LEDs.
“With blue and white LEDs we can make semiconductors that generate solid state lighting. 20 years ago people just joked about who would want to buy a US$200 light bulb. But my gut feeling was that the cost would come down as production volume increased and yield improves, just like all the semiconductor microchips,” says Lau.
In 1998, she was a visiting professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), where she joined the regular faculty in 2000 and later established the Photonics Technology Centre.
The Centre focuses on photonics, solid-state materials, and devices, applied to lighting and display. This research area also covers photonics technology, in particular lasers for optical communications and transistors for next-generation data centres and computing.
“When I made my first application to the Innovation Technology Fund to study LEDs and solid state lighting, there were few believers,” she says. Lau was also one of the early contributors of metalorganic chemical vapour deposition (MOCVD) technology, which has become indispensable for the manufacturing of LEDs and many other devices.
“At HKUST we have invented an LED micro display which I have been working on for 10 years. It has been commercially licensed and you could use it for high performance portable display, like Google Glass,” she says.
A Croucher Senior Fellowship in 2008 allowed Lau more time to pursue the micro-display project but she says more support is needed for engineers. Her current research is contributing to the development of micro-lasers for data communication as well as low-cost components for very high speed and high-performance computers and mobile units.
“Some people still have this idea that we engineers dig up the road. Not all engineers wear hard hats. We are creative minds designing your next electronic device, one that you would never have even dreamed of just a few years ago,” she says.
Lau Kei May is the Fang Professor of Engineering at the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering and Senior Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics from University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, in 1976 and 1977 respectively, and her Ph.D. Degree in Electrical Engineering from Rice University, Houston, Texas, in 1981. Lau is a Fellow of the IEEE and a recipient of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Awards for Women (FAW) Scientists and Engineers (1991). She served on the IEEE Electron Devices Society Administrative Committee and was an Editor of the IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices (1996-2002). She also served as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Crystal Growth and Applied Physics Letters. Lau received the Croucher Senior Research Fellowship in 2008.
To view Lau’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.