Meet Ajay Nahata – An Expert on the Science of Terahertz Optoelectronics

Ajay Nahata’s current research interests include terahertz optoelectronics, plasmonics, metamaterials, nanophotonics, nanofabrication, nonlinear optics, and ultrafast optics.

Ajay’s education includes a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Columbia University, New York. 

His Ph.D. focused on the use of ultrafast near-infrared lasers to develop terahertz (THz) optoelectronics. The primary contribution from his dissertation work was the development of room temperature approaches to generating and coherently detecting broader bandwidth THz radiation than was previously possible using existing semiconductor devices. These approaches are widely used today in THz labs around the world. 

Between his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees, Ajay Nahata spent five years working at AlliedSignal Inc. investigating the nonlinear optical properties of organic materials, particularly poled polymers, and their application to devices for high-speed optical communications.

After obtaining his Ph.D., Ajay returned to the industry for a combined time of nearly seven years at AlliedSignal and NEC Research Institute. During that time, his research topics included optical communications, surface plasmonics, THz optoelectronics, and quantum optics. 

In 2003, Ajay Nahata joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Utah as an Associate Professor. After being promoted to the rank of Professor, Ajay was appointed the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering. In that role, he not only led the accreditation effort for the college but also its recruiting and outreach effort, as well as its effort to teach both oral and written communications to all undergraduate students. 

He was also the principal investigator and Director of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) that supported the research efforts of approximately twenty faculty and fifty graduate students and post-doctoral fellows over seven years. 

As a professor, Ajay’s primary research effort was in the area of plasmonics and metamaterials, to develop devices for high-speed communications. During his time in Utah, he mentored a total of eight Ph.D. students, four post-doctoral fellows, and nearly two dozen graduate, undergraduate, and high school students. 

Since 2019, Ajay has transitioned back to the industry and led efforts in creating and making commercially available high-precision, high-sensitivity diode laser-based optical spectrometers and physics-based algorithms that make sense of the measured data.

We spoke with Ajay Nahata about everything from a skill he taught himself to why he loves to call the Bay Area home. 

Tell us about a skill you taught yourself.  How did you go about learning?

Over the last several years, I have led an effort in creating high-end scientific-grade optical instrumentation (high sensitivity laser-based optical spectrometers). I was initially brought into the effort because of my optics background, but as it turns out, the majority of my effort has been on everything but optics. 

One aspect of the work that I had not initially thought about and that was given much higher priority because of the pandemic – I could work on it remotely – was in the area of algorithm development. This involved learning how to program at a level that I had never come close to before. 

It turned out to be easier than I anticipated because the level of online information and online tutorials and classes are better developed than ever before. But what really made it easier was that I found that I really enjoyed it. 

Why is your city a great place to live and work?

I live in the Bay Area now and have been pleasantly surprised by just how much I like it. Aside from the fact that I have family and close friends nearby, I like the diversity that exists here and all of the activities that are always going on.

The former reason for liking the Bay Area is more important than it sounds, given that I have often lived in areas where my family and I have been the diversity.

From a professional point of view, the sheer breadth of engineering and scientific work taking place in close proximity to where I work is astonishing. I constantly run across people who are working on technical ideas that I didn’t even know was occurring, sometimes just down the street from me.

How do you find a work-life balance?  How do you like to spend your free time?

Unfortunately, I have never been very good at this. I think that has been the case because I do not see work and life as opposites. Nevertheless, I do not believe that work should completely take over anyone’s life. 

When I am not at work, I spend time with my family and friends. Over the last decade, I have found that I really enjoy cooking.

Please share a quote that has been most meaningful to you?

My favorite quotation comes from someone I would never have expected to quote: Mike Tyson. He once said, “If you’re not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you.” 

My mother has always talked about the importance of being humble. I like Mike Tyson’s quote because it has a very specific consequence if you’re not humble.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why? 

Easily the best $100 (or so) that I spent recently was on a really good pair of walking shoes. I try to walk at least five miles a day and occasionally suffer from plantar fasciitis. The shoes I bought have special insoles that so far have minimized this issue.

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