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Oct. 2, 2013

Inventor in the making

Image of Dr Kawai and Balois Balois receiving her prize from Exec. Director Dr Kawai

Maria Vanessa Balois is a PhD student and international program associate in the Near-Field NanoPhotonics Research Team. She recently won the Noyori Prize,which is given to the best poster presentation at the Noyori Summer School each year.

Congratulations on winning the Noyori Prize. How did you feel when you got the prize, and what do you think was good about your presentation?

Balois: Of course, I felt great to win it. I had been aware that there was a Noyori Prize, and I wanted to win it, so I put some effort into my poster, and I’m really happy the effort paid off. I also think the research itself was interesting. The main thrust of our research is to characterize nanomaterials found in nanodevices using Raman spectroscopy. Our group is familiar with “strained silicon,” a nanomaterial that is used in CMOS circuits today. So I think one important factor was the impact of our research on technology. Chipmakers are using the same technologies, and they’re always trying to make things smaller and faster, in accordance with Moore’s law. Our technique is a way to evaluate the material inside, so it’s easy to understand the applicability of our research in everyday life. It’s used in cell phones and laptops, for example.

How did you get into that field?

Balois: I graduated from a science high school in the Philippines and I had planned to do medicine or biology. But unfortunately, I didn’t do well enough on the exams to be admitted into medical school or to do biology. So my advisor suggested that I enter the physics course, as that would give me the background that could help me to get into medical school later.

But you didn't?

Balois: No. In my third year we had to choose a laboratory. My high school advisor happened to be a physicist who taught at the same university so he suggested that I enter his lab, which did photonics research. So that was the beginning of photonics for me. At that time, I happened to see the movie Star Wars and became very interested in holograms when I saw the scene of Princess Leia using one to communicate with Obi Wan Kenobi. That started my interest in holography. So holography was really the starting point of my interest in photonics. Later, I fell in love with lasers as well, because we used them a lot.

They are also used in Star Wars!

Balois: Yes. After that I went to do my masters at the University of Rochester, where they have a very good program in optics. There, I studied under Professor Govind Agrawal, who is very famous in the field of optical fiber communication. I found out from him that silicon photonics is the current technology for optical communications, and that opened another field of interest for me, in silicon.

Image of Balois working at the bench Balois in her lab

And then how did you get to RIKEN?

Balois: After I entered the University of the Philippines to do my PhD, I was encouraged to come to RIKEN as a student intern. At RIKEN, I learned about something called “strained silicon.” It’s one branch of silicon photonics. I really enjoyed doing the experiments, and decided I didn’t want to go back to holography, so I switched university to come to the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which had an agreement with RIKEN to send students as part of the IPA program. I applied for a position at RIKEN, but unfortunately was told that the lab I was going to join had no slots available. But luckily, a few months later I learned that one of the original IPAs had decided not to go, so a position was open. I was delighted by that, and it is really one of the highlights of my career so far, because it’s a very selective program. That was in October 2012.

As an IPA I am focusing on two things. During the first part of my program I am looking at strained silicon, and then after that is finished I will move on to biological materials, which is also a big interest of mine. In a sense I’m coming back to medicine.

What is your dream as a scientist?

Balois: I actually would like to be an inventor. I think there are people like Steve Jobs, or better yet Thomas Edison, who really created something that has become such an integral part of our lives that we couldn’t imagine living without it. I don’t really mind if people don’t remember me, but if the device has an important place, that would satisfy me. I don’t have a concrete idea, but maybe something that incorporates lasers.