Quantum laser pioneer and acclaimed teacher, Claire Gmachl, elected Optical Society Fellow

Tuesday, Oct 27, 2020
by Scott Lyon

Photonics expert Claire Gmachl has been elected a fellow of the Optical Society, the highest honor afforded researchers in the field that studies light and its myriad technologies.

Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering and head of Princeton's Whitman College, helped pioneer a class of lasers that have enabled many of today's most advanced sensing technologies. She is also widely seen as an exceptional mentor in developing the talents of her undergraduate and graduate students.

She joins the 2021 cohort of fellows, including 118 Optical Society members from 24 countries. The honor recognizes the breadth of a researcher's work, including contributions to fundamental research, engineering, teaching and business leadership. This year's cohort included 19% women, the highest ever percentage of female fellows in a given year, according to a statement from the society.

In addition to her groundbreaking work as a researcher, Gmachl has been a tireless advocate for making the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in general, and electrical engineering in particular, more accessible to historically underrepresented groups. She is an authority on responsible conduct in research, and over the past several years has developed three separate courses aimed at diversifying and improving the STEM pipeline — one graduate-level course on ethics and two undergraduate courses that teach foundational engineering topics through hands-on problems.

Gmachl spent eight years at Bell Laboratories before leaving her position as a distinguished member of the technical staff in 2003 to join the Princeton faculty as an associate professor. Scientists at Bell invented the basic systems underlying what are known as quantum cascade lasers, a kind of laser made from semiconductors that emit finely tuned light in the mid- to far-infrared part of the spectrum. Gmachl joined the company soon after, and has since developed a raft of noninvasive biomedical devices, including recent inventions that can identify key markers for diseases such as diabetes.

Gmachl holds 29 patents, with several more filed or pending. She has published more than 300 peer reviewed articles and, in the past 17 years, advised more than 30 Ph.D. students. In 2005, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as a "genius" grant. She has been featured in Popular Science magazine's list of "Brilliant 10" and Esquire's "Best & Brightest." Gmachl is a senior member of the IEEE, a member of the American Physical Society, and a corresponding member abroad of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.