BU’s Innovator of the Year Uses History to Shape the Future

Photo by Cydney Scott

To help students invent the technology of tomorrow, Selim Ünlü starts with a lesson about the breakthroughs of the past

By Andrew Thurston

Electrical and computer engineer Selim Ünlü’s lab is filled with the future, a hotbed of technological innovation that brims with gadgets. Much of what’s happening sounds like it could’ve been pulled straight out of science fiction: high-resolution subsurface imaging techniques to study the spectroscopy of quantum dots, nanoscale microscopy to examine fluorescent molecules, imaging biosensors for DNA arrays.

And yet one of the first lessons his students get isn’t about the technology and science of tomorrow, or even the present—it’s about the breakthroughs of the past. Ünlü, who has been named Boston University’s 2021 Innovator of the Year, shares with the class a few stories about history’s pioneers and visionaries.

“Science history is extremely important,” says Ünlü, a BU College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering. Instead of jumping in to teach sophomores essential engineering rules, like voltage divided by current equals resistance or the diffraction of light around objects, he puts them in the shoes of the people who first calculated those theories—such as American physicist Albert A. Michelson and English mathematician and astronomer George Airy—telling lively tales of how they put names to dazzling new concepts.

Read the full profile of Selim Ünlü on BU’s The Brink.