Joel Villatoro

University of the Basque Country, Spain

For seminal contributions to the research and development of interferometric optical fiber sensors and their applications.

Joel Villatoro remembers reading about scientists as a child growing up in Mexico. He saw photographs of them in their labs, working with microscopes or doing experiments, and Joel thought, “I would like to be in that picture.” Into high school, he continued to read and learn about scientific concepts, and participated in several contests, one on physics. He enjoyed the subject and wanted to study physics in college. However, he initially enrolled in civil engineering after high school. One semester later, he made the transition to physics, where he has been ever since. While in school, his financial situation posed a major barrier to Joel. The university was 900 kilometers from his hometown, and his family was unable to support him living in the big city. He was on the verge of dropping out when he found a job with the flexibility that allowed him to continue his studies and his brothers offered support. Joel was able to finish his education despite this challenge, and he is grateful for the help he received.

After completing his PhD, Joel moved to the United States for a postdoc position. There, he was exposed to experimental work for the first time, and he comments, “it changed my life.” He had only experienced theoretical work until that point, and the new kind of work fascinated him. His “vision of science” was utterly changed, and he describes himself as an experimentalist still today. Joel shares that in Mexico, mentorship is not as prevalent as in other places, at least when he was in school, and this is why he wasn’t able to find experimental work sooner. He comments, “20 years ago, I couldn’t find somebody who guided me or saw my potential as an experimentalist…In Mexico, you have to do many things by yourself.” As a result, an essential part of Joel’s work is being a mentor for his students, guiding them and encouraging them towards sectors where he sees potential.

Currently, the focus of his work is optical fiber sensors, and he is working to develop functional and economical sensors. He is also working to commercialize some of the inventions that he has developed already. His inventions overcome some of the main drawbacks of existing sensors, he says, and he is pleased with the results. Recently, he and the team have secured funding for a startup, specifically to begin market research. This exciting development may lead to new products on the market from Joel in the future. Though not tied to this current research area, Joel’s favorite of his inventions is a photonic crystal fiber mode interferometer, for which he was elected a Fellow. He recalls that while trying to explore something else, and he observed something that he didn’t recognize. By exploring this “accidental” result, he created something new that has had an impact in the community.

Joel’s advice to young scientists is to “go ahead!” He says that optics and photonics is a beautiful field with many opportunities to contribute to society. It is also important to stay up to date on developments in the research, which he does himself by reading Optica’s journals. He says, “The first thing I read in the morning is an [Optica] journal, and it is where I want to publish.” For Joel, the society is where he can communicate with colleagues, present his work effectively, and encourage his team to participate. Joel believes scientific societies must evolve in reaction to changes in the greater society, and he wants to be part of that change. 

Photo Credit: Joel Villatoro

Profile written by Samantha Hornback