Silicon nanophotonics pioneer Vlasov joins Illinois faculty

7/13/2016 Lauren D. Quinn

New Founder Professor Yurii Vlasov is affiliated with BIOE, ECE, MATSE, Beckman Institute, and MNTL.

Written by Lauren D. Quinn

After 15 years at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in New York, Yurii Vlasov has accepted a tenured position as a Founder Professor of Engineering in the departments of Bioengineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering. He also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory at Illinois.

Vlasov is one of the pioneers of silicon nanophotonics. He is highly regarded for his work at IBM, developing technology that greatly reduces the energy and cost required to transmit large amounts of data between chips. Although he was originally a fundamental scientist, he accepted the challenge of bringing the technology through to commercial release — directing research and development and leading the foundry's technology qualification and business development.

Photo of Yurii Vlasov.
Photo of Yurii Vlasov.
“There is a great deal of satisfaction in that, because now it is affecting the world. It will have a strong impact on real-world applications, like optical communications in data centers and supercomputers,” Vlasov said.

Once that mission was accomplished, Vlasov was ready for a new challenge. Wanting to return to his scientific roots, he did something that well established professionals rarely do — he sought out a brand new field of study in the area of brain-inspired computing architectures.

“It is amazing how little we know of the most complex object of all — our own brain — and how profound the impact of gaining even a little knowledge of its functionality on the future of computing systems,” said Vlasov.

To learn the frontiers of brain research, he spent a year at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus soaking up everything he could learn about experimental neuroscience.

“Everyone said, ‘You have such a stellar career in photonics, why are you doing this?’ The jump was a bit drastic. But I want to start something new from scratch, to once again be a founder of a new field that can have strong practical impact,” Vlasov explained.

Vlasov has established two laboratories at the U of I. The first is in integrated optical devices, something traditional for him, but now with additional focus on biomedical applications, for example, intelligent biosensors. The second lab is related to experimental systems neuroscience. Vlasov wants to further develop engineering tools to better understand the microcircuits in the brain and how they are responsible for behavior.

“The overarching theme is applying engineering solutions to the life sciences,“ Vlasov says.

The Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative, designed to attract and provide opportunities for prominent faculty, allowed Vlasov the opportunity to pursue his new interest.

Vlasov is eager to develop collaborations across the departments he is affiliated with, and to stock his labs with talented postdocs and graduate students who are, like him, willing to pursue a bold interdisciplinary research agenda with a promising real-world impact.

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This story was published July 13, 2016.