Friday, December 01, 2006

And old friend

(or my story as a phd admission candidate)

Eli Yablonovitch came from UCLA today to give a talk here at USC. He is the founder of the field of photonic crystals, which are used to manipulate light in the same way that transistors manipulate electrons. Photonic crystals will eventually be used for photonic computers - a superfast computer that used light instead of electric currents to calculate.

The guy has huge prestige in his field (as I now have learned). He founded the field, he had the first original ideas, he was the first to demonstrate them experimentally, and now he is the founder of two companies trying to manufacture these things. He has an interesting scientific american article that is available for download here. He even has his name on a material, Yablonovite.

Although I met him for the first time today, I have a long story with him. In a sense, he determined my future as a scientist without him even knowing it.

It was back in February of 2003 when I was waiting to hear back from the graduate schools in the US regarding my application for a PhD. UCLA was the first to respond, and this guy sends me an email that I quote here:

Efthymios: Congratulations, you are being considered for a Fellowship in my Research Group at UCLA. I wonder if we can schedule a telephone call to follow up. Please let me know what telephone number you can be reached at, and when I should call. Eli Y.

I was amazed when I saw this. My first response from the US was a fellowship at his group! I didn't have any idea back then regarding who he is or what he does other than the fact that he worked on a field that I was interested at. I later realized that my ignorance was a good thing as in any other case I might have accepted the offer immediately. But we decided to talk on the phone. So he called at my crappy apartment at 9pm on a Friday night, and discussed a little bit about his research and what I was doing. He seemed like a nice guy, and the fellowship sound very good. However I was inexperienced with the process, and since UCLA was my first response so early, I decided not to accept. I said to him that I would wait for other universities to answer before I decide. And he said it would be fine.

On March 20th, about a month later, this is our email exchange:

I don't agree that Stanford is necessarily a better choice than
UCLA. In the meantime, I understand that Financial Aid will be essential
for you to be able to study here. We will be able to say more about
Financial Aid after March 31.
Eli Y.

>So I am still waiting replies from Stanford (they say until March 30th) and
>Georgia Tech, Illinois. I am not in a position to know when they are going
>to respond, and that is why I would like to know whether or not I have to
>reply to you up to a certain date ( I do not know what the admission
>procedures are, deadlines, funding, etc).
>I just don't want delay on my behalf to cost my admission in UCLA.
>Thank you,
>Efthymios Kallos

For some reason I preferred to go Stanford rather than UCLA. If I knew this guy better, I would have said yes earlier. I now realize that waiting that long was a mistake (in trying to go into his group!). On April 7 of 2003, one week before the April 15th deadline for admission, after being rejected from Stanford and Illinois I sent him an email telling I would like to join his group.

You are currently on the waiting list for Financial Support. The
situation should be more clear in about 2 weeks.
Eli Y.

At 08:43 AM 4/7/03, you wrote:
>Prof. Yablonovich:
>I would like to tell you that I am now ready to join your group, provided
>that I get adequate financial aid. I would appreciate it if you could
>inform me in detail on this matter, and if there is anything I can do on
>my behalf.
>Thank you,
>Efthymios Kallos

By then I realize that the fellowship is gone! I was in a waiting list for financial aid, which is nothing... And I have to decide on where to go within 7 days! Slightly in panic regarding my future, I email him on the next day:

At 02:54 PM 4/8/03, you wrote:
>I am sorry for bothering you again, but this is important for me:
>At this point, can you give me any clue regarding the *probability* of
>getting some kind of financial aid? If you think that it is probable that I
>won't get any kind of support, I would like to know it so as to keep a
>failsafe choice of mine open. ( most admission decision deadlines expire
>after April 15th)
>Thank you,
>Efthymios Kallos

His cold reply was:

The safe thing would be to accept the offer that you have. If you
don't mind, I'd like to know which University that is.
Eli Y.

So he rejects me. Maybe he found another student to do what he needed? Maybe he didn't care anymore? I cannot tell. His last reply is as following:

At 02:17 AM 4/9/03, you wrote:
>Actually there are 2 offers: from Univ. of Michigan (which expires in a
>week) and from Ohio State (they have not set an absolute deadline yet).

I think it would be best to accept one of those offers.

>I thought that once I decided to enroll at ucla the financial aid wouldn't
>be a problem.

There is no financial aid for you at UCLA, I regret. The waiting
list is now closed.
Eli Y.

I got this email on a Wednesday, April 9th 2003. On Tuesday the deadlines for admission expired. But my response had to get to the university of my choice by regular mail by that day, so I had to send it by Friday April 11th in order to get to the US by Tuesday. Essentially, I had the day of Thursday, April 10th 2003 to make a decision about my whole future. The decision I would make on that day would probably determine all the rest of my life.

So I went to my drawer where I kept all the admittance letters and scanned through the, quickly to decide where I would want to do my PhD at. I had never looked at them carefully because up until that day I was sure I would the financial aid at UCLA. I didn't have a plan B.

I had 4 offers with financial support: University of Maryland, Ohio State (which has the best Electromagnetics lab around), University of Southern California (USC) and University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The last one was the best in terms of academic quality (it ranks just behind MIT, Stanford and Berkeley). I just went to the various websites and looked around... and I thought... USC... Los Angeles... sounds good. I didn't want 7 feet of snow above my head by mid-November like in Michigan.

Fast forward to September of the same year, 2003. Due to my decision on that life-altering Thursday, I was in a welcome committee for new PhD students with all the professors in my department of electrical engineering. I sit next to Tom Katsouleas, one of the professors there.

Tom: "What's yout name?"

Me: "Themos Kallos"

Tom: "Oh, I was looking for you! I thought you would come to see me sometime soon."

Me:"OK, I'll stop by."

So I went by his office were he told me that due to my physics courses I had taken and the excellent recommendation by Hizanides (with whom I had one of the most weird courses ever - on plasma physics). I joined his group soon after, and on the day of my first group meeting a new proposal had just been accepted: about an experiment at Brookhaven's ATF facility. And this is now becoming my PhD thesis.

But now back to Yablonovitch. I had always been curious to see how does this guy look like, how does he talk like, and could I tell why he rejected me at UCLA? And when I saw the poster for his talk here at USC last week I knew I would be the first to attend.

In fact, I went so early that the doors were locked... So I waited a few minutes until the doors opened. And I immediately recognized him: kind of short guy, with some beard and a very very sharp look. There is no question he is smart. But the rest of his posture told another story: the story of the former scientist that is now becoming a businessman. Formal suit, tie, nice shoes, and kind of stiff in his facial expressions. It was exactly the guy I wanted to avoid!

That is a problem with many professors at UCLA. They don't care much about the science anymore, they just want to start a company and make money and become (more) famous. I do not think I like that approach. Katsouleas and Muggli that control our group are vastly different (ok, Katsouleas walks around in a tie but only because he is in committees that will actually help the university - he wants to improve things academically). But Patric walks around in his jeans and he makes informal jokes and he fits loosely in his surroundings. He and Tom care about the science for the sake of science: our group not does care about producing devices - we care about the physics. There will be no commercial application of what we do in the near future - and we frankly don't care! We go for lunch and we discuss relativity and wonder why the speed of light is constant or why have we not communicated with aliens or why Europe is so much better than the US in the quality of life.

Anyway, I am getting too far with this. The bottom line is, when I see Tom talking about our field you see a spark in his eyes, a wish of a young child that wants to play around and learn more and more, and you admire him. You look into Eli's eyes and all you see is a smart person that will do everything to get his product finished. And that is the difference between science and business.