Alan E. Willner

Alan E. Willner

Fellow: Awarded 2012
Field of Study: Engineering

Competition: US & Canada

University of Southern California

Alan Willner received the Ph.D. (1988) in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University, as well as a B.S. (1982) and an Honorary Degree (Honoris Causa, 2012) from Yeshiva University. He was a Postdoctoral Member of the Technical Staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories and a Member of Technical Staff at Bellcore. He is currently the Steven and Kathryn Sample Chaired Professor of Engineering in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. Professor Willner has served on many scientific advisory boards for small companies and has advised several venture capital firms. Additionally, he was Founder and CTO of Phaethon Communications, a company acquired by Teraxion, that created the ClearSpectrum® dispersion compensator product line which is presently deployed in many commercial 40-Gbit/s systems worldwide.

Professor Willner has received the following honors/awards: International Fellow of the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering, Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House, David & Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship in Science & Engineering, National Science Foundation National Young Investigator Award, Fulbright Foundation Senior Scholar Fellowship, Optical Society of America (OSA) Paul Forman Engineering Excellence Award, Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) Photonics Society Engineering Achievement Award, IEEE Photonics Society Distinguished Lecturer Award, USC Associates Award for University-Wide Creativity in Research (highest research award), USC Associates Award for University-Wide Excellence in Teaching (highest teaching award), OSA Leadership Award, 2001 Eddy Paper Award from Pennwell Publications for the Best Contributed Technical Article (across all thirty magazines in Pennwell’s Advanced Technology Division) and Edwin Howard Armstrong Foundation Memorial Award for the highest-ranked EE Masters student at Columbia University. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, IEEE, OSA and SPIE, and he was a Fellow of the Semiconductor Research Corporation.

Professor Willner’s professional activities have included the following: Co-Chair of the U.S. National Academies Committee on the Harnessing Light II Study, President of the IEEE Photonics Society, Co-Chair of the Science & Engineering Council of the OSA, Vice-President for Technical Affairs of IEEE Photonics Society, Photonics Division Chair of OSA, Chair of the IEEE Technical Activities Board Ethics and Member Conduct Committee, General Co-Chair of the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO), Program Co-Chair of the OSA Annual Meeting, and General Chair of the IEEE Photonics Society Annual Meeting. Prof. Willner has been Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE/OSA Journal of Lightwave Technology, Editor-in-Chief of OSA Optics Letters, Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Quantum Electronics.  He has over 900 publications, including one book, 24 U.S. patents, 18 keynotes/plenaries, 17 book chapters, and 280 refereed journal papers. His research is in optical technologies.

Fields as diverse as medicine, education, physics, environmental science, energy and sociology have all been dramatically transformed by the ability to utilize large amounts of data, whether it comes from computers, sensors, storage, or imaging. However, we are approaching a point at which the amount of data being collected is outstripping our ability to readily make use of it (i.e., search for features). The John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship will support Prof. Willner’s research in using high-speed optics to assist electronics and potentially make the problem significantly more manageable.

A computer search engine takes some information in the form of a string of “1” and “0” digital data bits and tries to match this pattern to a desired pattern.  This matching can be realized by a correlator in the form of a tapped-delay-line, in which an incoming data stream is “tapped” (i.e., sampled) at different time intervals. If the taps represent a sequence of bits, the result produces a correlation peak that corresponds to the “matching” pattern. Importantly, data can be encoded on the optical wave’s amplitude, phase, polarization, and wavelength to increase data-processing speed. Such high-speed optical correlators might produce a significant decrease in the time needed to process extremely large amounts of data.


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