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Enrique Galvez

Colgate University, United States
For outstanding research in classical and quantum optics, in particular on the topic of complex light; and for developing educational optics laboratories and involving undergraduates in research.
Enrique Galvez

To anyone that has ever seen the 1996 Warner Bros. movie Space Jam, “monstars” are cartoon villains playing a basketball game against Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Toon Squad. For Enrique Galvez, also known as “Kiko,” monstars are part of the coolest research he’s ever done. Of course Kiko is not referring to cartoon villains, but rather to “an asymmetric pattern in the polarization of the light.” Kiko believed that he could experimentally demonstrate the monstars predicted by theorists. It turns out, after much thought and discussions with colleagues, that Kiko was able to solve the “puzzle” and, with the help of a number of students, figure how to make optical beams with spatially-variable polarization monstar patterns.

The focus of Kiko’s research is working with shaped optical beams. He jumped into this field after he read about research that produced optical beams in the shape of a doughnut that carry orbital angular momentum in the late 1990s. “It was too cool not to work on it,” he says. As time went on, the topic attracted lots of fundamental science and technical applications. Because of this, Kiko says he sees shaped optical beams “becoming the next path to multiplexing information for communications.” There are new types of beams being investigated that have applications, not only in communications, but also in imaging and medical diagnosis. “There is much more in store in the study of designer optical beams” he adds.

Working with undergraduate students has been a hallmark of Kiko’s career. He currently has 53 undergraduate coauthors of refereed papers and continues to involve them in his laboratory activities. In his favorite work, however, it was a high school student that actually helped him to perform the work. In this research, he studied “the role of topology in the rotation of images when light follows a 3-dimensional path.” The standard method for this research is to multiply matrices. Kiko says this is a “very brute force method and leaving one with little intuition as to what to expect.” Instead of using the conventional method, Kiko thought to use a concept called geometric phase, which reduces the rotation of images to calculating the solid angle described by the propagation of the light in a sphere of directions. When he was set to do this work, a bright high-school student, Chris Holmes, showed up in his office looking for a summer job. Kiko had him work on the problem of sending the light in 3-D trajectories with mirrors and measuring the solid angle and the rotations. “It worked beautifully,” Kiko says. They published an article together in JOSA A presenting the results. Kiko says that his “favorite part of the paper was the footnote of his co-author’s present address: Norwich High School, New York.”

As exemplified above, Kiko’s favorite part of the research process is to “figure out a problem and confirm it in the laboratory.” He continues, “it is a give and take because we are always wrong and nature is always right. We just have to figure out the mechanism.” He says that “doing research in optics has been an intellectual exercise in unravelling the science behind phenomena and finding the appropriate formalism to explain it.”

“American Physicist Richard Feynman used to say that scientists experience the worst kind of pain: confusion. Indeed that is what I feel most of the time, but then somehow the solution comes along, and it is fun when that happens. I think one’s career is a random walk leaning in the direction of interest. I say random because one often faces decisions that lead to unpredictable situations and opportunities. My advice to young scientists is to follow your interests and to enjoy the process of figuring out problems. Over time you will be good at solving problems, and if you work hard and are lucky, you will discover very cool phenomena.”

Profile written by Jeanette Gass

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