PhD Candidate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering
Lakshay Gautam is PhD candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. He is interested in the solar-blind window, a particular wavelength domain for semiconductor-based detection technologies. Lakshay is a Ryan Fellowship award recipient, which supports outstanding graduate students dedicated to the exploration of fundamental nanoscale science and its benefits to society.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I am particularly interested in semiconductor-based detector technology in a specific wavelength regime referred to as the solar-blind window. This is a particular regime in the electromagnetic spectrum that lies in the deep ultraviolet (UV) region, where no background radiation from the sun exists. This creates unique applications such as biological agent detection (e.g., anthrax), astronomy, flame detection systems, etc.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I started out wanting to study theoretical physics in my undergraduate career from being inspired by reading books by heavyweight scientists such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Feynman. However, later in my senior year, I took courses in solid-state photonics, which also involved lab work in a cleanroom. The hands-on nature of these courses involving experiments and simulations with real-world applications really pushed me toward pursuing an advanced degree in solid-state photonics.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
Throughout my undergraduate years, I always stuck to things that I knew I was good at. I never really ventured out of my academic comfort zone, which restricted me from developing my skills in different areas. This changed completely in my graduate years when I was challenged to learn and operate complicated pieces of equipment for my experimental work, which helped me gain the confidence to challenge myself by venturing out of my comfort zone.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
One of the most critical parts of my research work is growing high-quality semiconductor material using a highly complicated system called Metal-Organic Chemical Vapor Deposition (MOCVD). This system employs a host of toxic and highly flammable chemicals that act as sources to grow high-quality semiconductor films. In addition, a host of different variables in the growth conditions such as pressure, temperature, molar flow, etc. affect the quality of the material. Even a slight deviation in one of these parameters can result in significant changes in the material properties. Therefore, working with such highly toxic and sensitive equipment can be frustrating but also rewarding as you start to appreciate how attention to detail is so important when it comes to each experiment in terms of safety and their design to find novel materials.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
One of the most significant implications of my work would be to replace the current state-of-the-art Photomultiplier tubes, which are bulky, fragile, and vacuum-based detectors that need to be operated at ~1000 V for single photon detection in the Deep UV regime. My research work on AlGaN-based solid-state detectors would replace the state of the art with compact, robust, efficient, and portable alternatives.
One of my undergraduate professors for my solid-state courses in the ECE department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Prof. Can Bayram, inspired me to take up a career in semiconductor research. Prof. Bayram himself, being an alum of Northwestern with a stellar career in semiconductor research both in industry and academia, pushed me to apply at Northwestern.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Cooking and working out at the gym has been an avenue for me to decompress after a long day in the cleanroom. I also love to play tennis or football whenever the weather permits.
What inspires you?
My grandfather, Trilok Chand Gautam, has always been an inspiration to me. Growing up in a family with abject poverty and a widowed mother in pre-independence India with a zeal to study completely changed the fate of his descendants. My grandfather, after failing the 8th grade, was forced to take up farming by his uncle since that was the only source of income available to his family at the time. However, defying all odds, he went on to complete his degree in electrical engineering and was one of the engineers responsible for setting up an electrical grid in the remote northeastern parts of India. Had he given up in the 8th grade and not pursued a career in engineering thereafter, I would not be in the U.S. pursuing an advanced degree.
Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
Right after the pandemic, I started to get back into the groove of my research work and started making significant progress toward it. However, just when I was close to making a breakthrough, the critical piece of equipment that I use, namely the Metal-Organic Chemical Vapor Deposition (MOCVD) system, experienced a major electrical fault due to a thunderstorm in Evanston, which flooded the main chamber of the system, resulting in a complete halt to my research.
This significantly set me back in my research timeline since major part replacements needed to be shipped from Germany. With the support and confidence of my adviser, Prof. Razeghi, rather than being dejected, I learned everything I could about the system by taking it apart piece by piece and then putting it back together once the parts were available. This gave me invaluable insight about the MOCVD system, making me more confident in tinkering with it tailored to my research ideas.
Published: September 5, 2023
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