Chad Husko’s Fulbright Report
by Chad Husko
My Fulbright year working at Thales Research and Technology (www.thalesgroup.com) in France was one of the most rewarding, both personally and professionally, of my life. I worked with first-rate colleagues, Alfredo de Rossi and Sylvain Combrié and Quynh Tranh, who helped me take great strides in my understanding of optical physics and the French language. Our team produced top-notch research that will lead to several publications. At Thales, I was also able to meet important people in my field whom I might have never had the chance to encounter. There are too many adventures to recount in this space, but here are a few.
The opening weeks were spent learning about the Thales lab facilities and reading papers of other local lab groups with whom we collaborate. We also reviewed my work done at Columbia and confirmed the research topic that we had discussed throughout the past year. I also worked with Qunyh, a fellow Ph.D. student in my group, to design and do simulations of our initial structures.
Barely 3 weeks into working, the first round of the grèves (train strikes) hit. Despite 2 weeks of strikes, and a potentially daunting commute to Thales in the town of Palaiseau (23 km south of Paris), I was able to get to work by catching a ride with my colleague Alfredo. One of the days, we took advantage of the transit strike to meet up with our collaborators at L’école Normale Superieure de Télécommunications in Paris. We had a productive day and designed an experiment. My experiences at Columbia allowed me to make several suggestions despite my then relatively low-level of French. We also met with colleagues at the Lab de Photonique et de Nanostructures (LPN) and planned the experiments that I would be undertaking.
On the personal side, I joined the Thales running group. One of my friends in the group, Denis, is an avid scuba diver and has visited over 50 countries. His family also owns a Château in Bordeaux. Needless to say, I schemed to get there. I also visited the lab of another friend, Christian, who explained his experiment to me. Finally, I hooked Paolo (Italiano certo!) on a neighborhood Belgian beer store. It’s funny that the guy from out of town knows more about the neighborhood than the guy who lives there. Scientist friends were abundant!
November was spent working on our first samples. I learned the subtleties of the group’s experimental setup and characterized several devices. I also worked with Kristelle Robin, a fellow Ph.D. student, to make corrections on her first journal paper. In December, Fabrice Raineri of LPN came to Thales for a day to help start up a new series of experiments that later led to our major results. Another cultural side note, Fabrice’s uncle was one of the founders of Café Malongo. This brand is well known throughout France and can be procured in the local supermarché. I expanded on the topic of “Café Culture in Paris” in my cultural presentation at the Fulbright mid-year meeting. Addressing an audience with a variety of backgrounds and interests, I made a strong appeal for the support of fundamental physics research. Albert Fert, the 2007 Nobel Prize winner for his pioneering work in spintronics, was at Thales. Mentioning that without his research we would not have computer memory or iPods hit close to home I think. Later in the spring, I organized an “espresso jam” at my favorite café.
The work culture was ideal for getting to know my colleagues. Every day we would go to lunch together and, depending on the day’s news, we would discuss French politics, the then upcoming U.S. primary elections, or the so-called “crise sub-prime” (sub-prime mortgage crisis). Talking about science in French is one thing, but discussing politics or finance is another. In short, my colleagues were extremely patient.
In March, I was selected as a representative of the Franco-American Commission to a special conference on the European Union (EU). Our group of Fulbrighters from around Europe had the opportunity to meet with key players in the EU, as well as NATO. A highlight of the trip was meeting and having a spirited debate with the U.S. Special Envoy to the EU, C. Boyden Gray. The essay that I wrote for the selection process was in fact inspired by Prof. Mauel’s talk on his sabbatical year in Washington, D.C., which I was fortunate enough to attend before my departure.
While at Thales, I was able to meet and have discussions with several world-class scientists. Two notable examples were Govind Agrawal of the University of Rochester, and Borge Vinter, of Thales and the University of Nice. When he visited, Prof. Agrawal spent a good amount of time talking with us in our lab. He wrote a key text in fiber optics research, the results of which are also applicable to my research on photonic crystals. As for Prof. Vinter, I had several discussions about quantum well physics with him. It was really great to pick the brain of a guy who is the author of several textbooks on the subject. In addition to these more flashy moments, throughout the spring we continued to work hard on our research, debugging our new experimental setup and testing samples. The last few weeks we were able to crank out some nice results. Now it’s time to publish!
This last year I also had a timely re-read of “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” Between the espresso talk to my Fulbright colleagues and energy debates with the Mr. Gray, I couldn’t help but imagine the amazing life of the late physicist. The year in France, the cheese, my amazing friends and colleagues at Thales, and the research results we achieved, have been more rewarding and productive than I could ever have expected. Now if only I could win that Nobel Prize!
Special Thanks: From the application process, to negotiating Columbia grant policies, my incredible year would not have been possible without the support of some very treasured friends and mentors in APAM. You know who you are!