Funding expected to open new field

Author: Kathy Mayer
Radar, high-power electronic-warfare pulse generators, radio-frequency spectrum monitoring, covert wireless and remote-device signature recognition all stand to benefit from new research in optics underway by Andrew Weiner, Purdue University Scifres Family Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Andrew WeinerThis May, he was named one of 10 National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellows by the U.S. Department of Defense for 2009—out of 468 nominees. The award—“a big block of funding for the next five years of over $4 million,” Weiner says—will cover what he calls “basic research with an eye toward applications.”

Aikido helps Weiner focus, stay fit
A few times a week, Andrew Weiner sets aside his research and intellectual pursuits for the rigorous, disciplined exercise of aikido, a noncompetitive Japanese martial art.

It’s an interest he first took up as a 7th grader, left for a while, then returned to as an adult. He’s achieved the nidan rank, a second-degree black belt.

“It’s regular exercise and it’s vigorous,” Weiner says. “Your mind has to be in it. And you can get stronger and improve without the negative of one person having to win.” The art emphasizes self-defense techniques using the energy of the attacker.

The practice also gives him time with Purdue students and with his daughter, Roberta, a high school student. Weiner is chief instructor and advisor for the Purdue University Aikido Club, a recreational sports club, and his daughter has been studying aikido with him for three years.

Funds to increase research, researchers
The money will cover new equipment, three graduate students the first year, then five, a full-time and half-time post-doc researcher and part of the salary of Senior Research Scientist Daniel Leaird.

“The intent is also to expose me to the Department of Defense establishment and its needs, which may influence our basic research,” Weiner says. “And new opportunities may then come of that.”

When the award was announced, William Rees Jr., deputy under secretary of defense to laboratories and basic science, said, “These individuals are some of the top academics in fields of strategic importance to the Department of Defense.”

Leah H. Jamieson, the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering, is excited by the recognition and what it means for Purdue and for Weiner’s research endeavors. “This award is a superb recognition of both the quality and importance of Andy’s work,” she said.

All Weiner’s research activities will be conducted in Purdue’s Ultrafast Optics and Optical Fiber Communications Laboratory, which focuses on ultrafast laser pulses on the femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second) time scale.

“This award will help us have some great impact with what we do,” says Leaird, who has known Weiner 22 years, earlier working with him at Bellcore in New Jersey.

“He’s very serious about his work. He’s the smartest person I know,” Leaird says of Weiner. The professor also is accessible and approachable, “and when he won the Purdue University Provost’s Outstanding Graduate Student Mentor Award (in 2008), he insisted the whole team be invited to the event.”

First worked in industry
Educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Weiner’s first work after earning his Ph.D. in 1984 was with Bellcore, where he met his wife, Brenda, a systems engineer.

“I didn’t even look at universities then,” Weiner says. “I went into research that was academic-like, at a great place to do basic research. After eight years, in the early 1990s when the telecommunications industry starting changing a lot, I decided to look for a university position.”

Joined Purdue as full professor
In 1992, Purdue invited him to join the faculty at the full-professor level. He was drawn to Purdue because of its reputation and the people, he says. “I like that Purdue is in the Top 10 engineering programs, and I’m surrounded here by excellent colleagues, people who collaborate and work with each other,” he says. “In industry, collaboration was prized, and I knew I could accomplish more at Purdue.”

His area was also underrepresented at Purdue, “so I had an opportunity to come in and make my own impact.” He developed a course in ultrafast optics, and he oversees the electromagnetic field theory course.

In 2002, he was named the Scifres Family Distinguished Professor. In 1999/2000, he was a visiting professor at the Max Born Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Ultrashort Pulse Spectroscopy in Berlin, Germany, and in 2006/2007, a visiting fellow at the University of Colorado and National Institute of Standards of Technology. In his 17 years at Purdue, he’s received more than 70 research grants.

Loves the work, the students
Today, he says, “I’m always excited about new things to do. I look forward to coming to work everyday. There’s always been cool research to do and I can think of cool new research. I’m continually finding things that are fun, exciting and new.”

He also enjoys working with grad students and post docs. Currently, he’s supervising six Ph.D. students and one master’s student. Over his career, he’s worked with another 40 and seven post docs.

“I get to see them mature, help them turn their raw talent into skillful, capable researchers. There’s great satisfaction is seeing people develop.”

Weiner also appreciates being able to accomplish things. “I try to invent new ways of doing things, solve challenging goals, and see other people adopt what we’ve come up with. I resist the fashionable. I want to uniquely contribute.”

While not adorned in typical Boilermaker memorabilia, his office has plenty of gold and black. The gold is a full shelf of optics journals; the black, notebooks labeled “Talks,” by year.

Among Weiner’s achievements are 10 patents, all related to ultrafast optical signal processing; the 2009 publication of his text book, Ultrafast Optics; and hundreds of journal publications and conference presentations. In 2008 he was named to the National Academy of Engineering; he’s also a Fellow in the Optical Society of America and IEEE, was the inaugural recipient of the Research Excellence Award in the School of Engineering in 2003, and won the Optical Society of America’s R.W. Wood Prize, jointly with J.P. Heritage, in 2008.

Passionate about learning
Boston-born, then raised in Winter Park, Florida, Andrew Weiner is the oldest of six children. “I always liked math and science, and I was good at it,” he recalls. He even did self-study in math outside school hours, and he enjoyed playing chess.

“Both of my parents were very supportive of education. My mother read to us all the time,” Weiner says.

His father, an electrical engineer, modeled a solid work ethic. The son of immigrants, his dad had been “hungry a lot as a kid.” He enlisted in the Army on his 18th birthday, then used the GI bill to go to college, later earning a master’s. Weiner’s mother, a homemaker, studied art.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Weiner earned an BSEE in 1979, an MSEE in 1981 and a ScDEE in 1984, his interest in lasers was peaked by undergraduate professor Hermann Haus, who taught electromagnetics. “I liked the professor and his enthusiasm., even though he wasn’t my major professor,” Weiner says.

Today, lessons from his students are among Weiner’s greatest rewards. “I get to learn new things from my students, and that’s the payback.”

"This award is a superb recognition of both the quality and importance of Andy’s work"
     — Leah H. Jamieson

“… Just as in research where there is no absolute truth, in the Kiwi environment there is no authoritative voice to guide—or limit—what students discuss.”

     — Mimi Boutin, ECE Professor