Laura Smoliar became interested in physics at a young age – her mother was a physicist. “Sometimes I’d get to go to her lab,” Smoliar said. “It was a fun place. There were lots of toys.” She went to college at Columbia University, and went on for a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. For the last year of her PhD, she studied in Taiwan, then stayed there for one year after finishing her degree. Her two years in Taiwan would have a major impact on her life.
Laura Smoliar with a team member.
When she first arrived in Taiwan, she didn’t speak the language. “Everything was stimulating because it was challenging,” she says. “Going to the grocery store was challenging.” Soon, she learned some basic Mandarin Chinese, well enough to hold a simple conversation. Now that she could communicate better, she found even more stimulation from the people around her. “I was inspired by the whole culture in Taiwan,” she says. She loved the cooperative nature of her research there – everyone seemed willing to work and help the group reach its mutual goals.
She found another inspiration as well – this was 1995, and high-tech business was booming. Smoliar had always thought she would become a professor, but watching her colleagues work showed her the range of careers she could have as a physicist. She was attracted to high-tech business when she saw her colleagues’ love of technology, fast pace of life, and diverse work force. In 1996, she moved to Menlo Park, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and began to work for a technology firm. In 2001, the management at Lightwave Electronics invited her to start her current job.
As a Program Manager at Lightwave, a small technology company in California’s Silicon Valley, Smoliar spends most of her time working with people to solve a variety of problems. She manages a team of about fifteen physicists and engineers; she flies regularly from her office to Europe and Japan to work with other physicists and engineers; she discusses specifications with her customers; she reports on her progress to Lightwave’s management. She says that working with other people is her favorite part of the job – especially working with her fellow physicists and engineers on the technical specifics of the lasers. “I have an awesome team,” she says. “They are very, very bright people.”
Smoliar and her team are building a new type of “fiber laser”, whose beam travels through a glass fiber, similar to those used for fiber-optic telephone lines.. The fiber allows the laser to be miniaturized, which makes fiber lasers useful in applications where small size is important.
Under development are two specific lasers for a single customer, a large technology company in Japan. The team has already developed a prototype of one laser, and expects to have final versions of both ready in about a year. The lasers are being built for the customer’s specific application, but Smoliar anticipates that her team’s lasers will affect other technologies in the near future.
Today, Smoliar’s workday often starts at 6 or 7 AM, when she calls her team members in Europe. She discusses how the lasers are developing, and identifies problems with the system. “The discussions are quite technical,” she says – the team reviews scientific and engineering details about how the lasers work. Later in the day, Smoliar might meet with the customer to update them on the schedule, with suppliers to purchase equipment needed to build the lasers, with company managers to talk about progress, or with job applicants looking to join her team. About once a month, she travels to Japan to meet with team members there.
She needs information from all these meetings because, as Program Manager, she is responsible for deciding on what direction to take with the project. “The biggest part of my job is making decisions, judgment calls,” she says. “It’s not a purely technical job, but you need a technical background to make decisions.” By taking a job with Lightwave, Smoliar certainly feels that she made the right decision.