uncorks a new optical technology.
For a woman once accused of lacking the requisite "math gene," Julie Fouquet
'80 has done pretty well.After graduation, she earned a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford, then took a research post at Hewlett-Packard.
Over the years, her
work there has included designing lasers and studying "time-resolved photolumin-escence of compound semiconductors."Last year, she
unveiled a new invention: a patented all-optical switch.The tiny device is poised to unleash the long-awaited, full power of fiber-optic cables, and chase a market estimated at billions of dollars.Julie Fouquet with her ground-breaking all-optical switchÑthe diamond-shaped object in the center of the circuit board where the cables meet. Julie Fouquet
ground-breaking all-optical switch--the diamond-shaped object in the center of the circuit board where the cables meet.
..."They will change our lives in many ways," says Fouquet, who now works at one of Hewlett-Packard's spin-off companies, Agilent Technologies in Palo Alto.
"Uncomplicated" is a good way to describe Fouquet
.When explaining the switch, she
rattles off components more like a neighbor sharing a recipe for meatloaf, than like a groundbreaking optical-communications scientist.Outside the lab, she
has a husband, two sons, a house they took years to remodel, and a vacation home on the northern California coast.
In high school, she
was called "brain"--much to her
embarrassment.Teachers asked her
to help other children with homework, and there is a family story of a very young Fouquet calculating the number of cups available for a party."My mother says I was interested in numbers from before I can even remember," she
says.As a teenager, she
liked math and earth science, and was one of only a few girls at her
school to take a college-level calculus class.A girlfriend whose father was a successful electrical engineer prompted her
to stay on for a second year: "She
saw no reason not to excel, and persuaded me to keep her
remembers."It was a good thing, because I challenged myself."
discovered a love of light."My laser lab sophomore year was great fun; we made holograms," says the Dunster House alumna.So was measuring astronomical masers around stars and using the big telescopes at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.In an electrical-engineering class, she
built "a little optical communications link" using a junky old amplifier."I sent a message out over it, but then suddenly it burned up from all the old padding and dust inside and smoke started coming out," she
Since then, Fouquet
has worked in various ways to encourage girls and women to enter science.She
ran the Women in Science and Engineering Lecture Series at Stanford
, and has subsequently mentored women and hired female graduate students.But even at Agilent
, there are not that many female researchers, she
In 1995, Hewlett-Packard
to look into making an all-optical switch.Dozens of companies, she
says, are also trying to build such a switch; Agere Systems, for example, has a competing device.Most of these firms, including Agere, are using micromirrors on silicon chips to redirect the light, or liquid crystal technology (molecules that flow like liquid and can manipulate properties of light).Fouquet
investigated these options, and found them lacking--or just too complex.For starters, directing the mirrors is a difficult, mechanical problem."It's like trying to aim a laser at a person who is running six miles ahead of you while you're in a truck that is bouncing around on the road," she
says.There was no existing technology that could change and block light as well and as fast as it should be done, she
continues, "so it was either give up or develop something new."
In the end, Fouquet
was inspired by methods that could not have been closer to Hewlett-Packard
's core: thermal ink-jet printers.Considered one of the clumsier technologies around, the printers make the ink boil, a bubble forms, and the ink is forced to the tip of a pen, where it shoots (or "jets") onto the paper."The bubble shoves the ink out of the orifice.It's all very fast and explosive," she
says."We don't do things as fast, but we use similar actuators" to heat the liquid and form bubbles in the switch's trenches."We had a lot of the ideas and intellectual property in-house," she
notes, "and we took advantage of that."
Using partially constructed inkjet pens, she
began to experiment.
The switch is now being used by Alcatel
, the giant French communications equipment company, and other customers, Fouquet
says--"We are selling everything we can make."She
now spends much of her
time "on manufacturing the switch and getting it out the door.People want to make money off the technology, and I like to make sure that something real comes out of all this thinking and experimenting.It's exciting."
Of course, Fouquet
has also begun to work on new projects."It has to do with optical switching," she