WHO: Dr. Meredith Hutchinson is an electrical engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). She received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Maryland, College Park and her Master of Science and Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego in electrical engineering with a focus in photonics.
Photonics is the study of the properties and transmission of photons, or elementary particles. Her research involves device physics, fiber optics and optical communications systems and devices. She joined the NRL in 2009 as a contractor and moved to government upon finishing her Ph.D. in 2010.
MISSION: “NRL is the Navy’s corporate research lab and is the oldest one of the oldest Government R&D (research and development) labs. Our mission is to not only support Navy technological development but to remain a world class leader in basic research across all disciplines. My job is very flexible and allows me to collaborate and work with many different institutions in support of the core Naval Mission.”
Tell us a little about your technology/science.
“I work in fiber optics where the majority of my background is in microwave photonics and photodetectors. Although we think of digital telecommunications systems as the standard, the use of analog systems is still central to many Navy and DoD needs, such as radar. Photonics is a growing field that allows the use of light instead of electricity for these systems, which provides tremendous gains in bandwidth, speed, length of transmission as well as weight reduction. In contrast to digital systems, in the analog world we care a lot more about signal integrity and noise. I work on very specialized systems for Navy applications, such as electronic warfare (EW).”
What is the goal/mission of this technology and what do you hope it will achieve?
“Currently, I am leading a few programs: the first, seeks to experimentally and theoretically understand high power photodiode limits. Photodiodes are the receiver for a photonic link and are the least understood of the three major link components. My program in conjunction with collaborations with industry, academia and other government agencies is to facilitate commercialization of these devices as well as develop standard modeling methods so that we can easily assess the entire system performance.
”As the field of photonics matures and the Navy seeks to transition more systems to platforms, these models and experimental analysis allow us to develop better capabilities for the future as well as detail system performance over a very wide bandwidth of operation. The second, is looking at developing novel multidimensional optical domain techniques.
”In the digital world there is a tremendous effort to look at all dimensional parameters that can be used to drive up transmissions speeds and density, via space, polarization, amplitude and phase modulation; such techniques can be used for similar purposes in the analog world, although for very different purposes. We seek to leverage some of the technologies developed in digital communications for new techniques in the analog optical domain.”
In your own words, what makes this science so significant?
“The development of a standard method to analyze photodiodes for photonic systems is severely lacking. The methods we are developing can be expanded to other devices, in both the electrical and optical field, so there’s a broad range of fields that these methods can be applied to. Photodiodes do not operate with a specific transfer function, and have many different structural designs which give rise to vastly different behavior.
”Our approach is to simplify the way in which we characterize and predict device behavior by using a set of measurements and modeling techniques in order to reduce the device behavior to a somewhat standard set of linear and nonlinear parameters. In this way we can then rapidly compare many different devices with many different behaviors.”
How could you use this science to aid the military or help with military missions?
“Many Navy electronic systems lack capabilities we need now as well as in the future. The transition to photonic systems in the appropriate places will engender significant gains in flexibility, reduction in weight and efficiency. Since the field of photonics is not as established or refined as their electronic counterpart it can be difficult to get the technology transitioned to the appropriate platforms. Our development of device and system components as well as the associated models allows us to directly assess the ability to replace and upgrade the functionality of older systems. As well there are many new applications and techniques we are developing utilizing high power photodiodes that cannot be accomplished with traditional electronics.”
What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of this science?
“Photonics is a rapidly developing field. The use of light for new science, communications and systems is endless. Working on everything from basic physical properties to specific devices for Navy systems gives me an incredible perspective and ability to apply these methods to things outside my area of expertise.”
When do you expect your project to be ready for use?
“I have one program ending this year that I hope to have the models well enough established so that we can incorporate them into our larger system models. In parallel, I’ve been working to support and verify device performance of commercialization of these devices that are very close to be ready for insertion by the end of this year. I’m just starting to transition into some new areas, including electromagnetic sensing and fiber optic sensors.
”These technologies are similar to what I have been working on but instead of my current focus, which is to seek to make performance as linear as possible; these applications seek to exploit small nonlinearities or irregularities in order to identify something out of the normal. So it is incredibly exciting to flip my perspective and apply it to new applications and fields.”
What got you interested in this field of study?
“I had always liked the hands on nature of electrical engineering in school. However, when I went to graduate school, I wanted to expand beyond the current field I was in which was rather narrow, so I decided to study optics and photonics. I wanted to be in a field that was growing and touched all aspects of science, which optics does. This gives me infinite possibilities for the future and what I work on.”
If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?
“I would go back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci, the late 1400s. I remember seeing his notebooks in the Treasures of the British Library while in London and being in awe of the handwritten historical scientific records. I find it amazing that he had such passion for a wide range of subjects including art, music, anatomy, history and much more. His historical significance and what he’s generally known for is such a small part of all of things he worked on. I think there is a sense now that art and science are distinctly different subjects, but a few centuries ago the best scientists studied everything and I’d love to experience that and gain from working in such a variety of areas.”
What’s your best advice for budding scientists?
“Remember that no matter where you are in your career that you are a novice at something and that perspective is a good thing. As we gain expertise in a small area sometimes we get a false sense of knowing everything.”
"I find it useful to periodically put myself in uncomfortable and new situations to remain the most creative, so that I don’t make assumptions from a limited perspective."
- Dr. Meredith Hutchinson
Thanks to Dr. Meredith Hutchinson for contributing to this article and for her contributions to the science and technical communities. For more information about her work, click here.
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