Photonics pioneer among three BU faculty recognized by world’s largest scientific society

By Patrick L. Kennedy

A pioneer of spiral-shaped light beams that might improve internet capacity, medical imaging, and more, Distinguished Professor of Engineering Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE, MSE) has been selected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The world’s largest general scientific society, AAAS annually bestows this honor on scientists, engineers, and innovators in recognition of scientifically and socially distinguished achievements throughout their careers.

“Siddharth is a leading scholar in photonics and optics,” says Boston University College of Engineering Dean ad interim Elise Morgan. “He has been at the forefront of his field for decades, and has a long track record of innovative advances in the science and engineering of light.”

Ramachandran studies the use of structured light, or light beams that travel in twisting paths rather than in straight lines. He and colleagues famously demonstrated in a 2013 Science paper that these corkscrew laser beams can be wielded to double or even quadruple the capacity of fiber optic cables—the kind that carry data across the internet.

Last year, his team leapfrogged that mark: In a second groundbreaking Science paper, they showed it’s possible to use the tornado-shaped light beams to transmit 50 or even 100 times more data than today’s networks could handle. And in the bargain, the researchers made an interesting scientific discovery: photons traveling in these spiral paths show the same orbital motion as binary stars in outer space.

While the internet capacity implications of Ramachandran’s work have attracted the most attention, the techniques his lab is pioneering have the potential to advance other industries as well. They might be applied to more efficient quantum computing, high-powered lasers, and even neuro-imaging.

Ramachandran, who is also affiliated with the CAS physics department and the BU Photonics Center, considers it a signal honor to be named an AAAS Fellow. “As the umbrella body for all the sciences in the U.S.,” Ramachandran says, “not only does the AAAS publish Science, one of the most prestigious journals covering all the sciences, but they also have a very positive role as strong advocates for robust science policy.”

Ramachandran relishes making connections across fields, he says. “Because what we’ve been working on is a basic building block on how to send light from one point to another point, it ends up finding applications in a variety of disciplines, and that is really exciting. Sometimes I’m talking to biomedical engineers, sometimes I’m talking to neuroscientists, or earth-to-satellite communication experts.”

In a way, those kinds of cross-disciplinary conversations led Ramachandran and his students to hit upon the analogy between spiral-traveling photons and binary stars. “That is the essence of science,” he says. “Are there more fundamental questions that describe not only how a ball flies but also how a photon flies? That serendipity is what motivates me: You find something interesting, and then you dig into it and make more discoveries. That digging is its own reward—for me, that’s self-propelling.”

Two other BU faculty were also named among this year’s 502 AAAS Fellows: Professor of Biology Daniel Segrè and Professor of Physics Lee Roberts.

“As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the AAAS Fellows tradition, AAAS is proud to recognize these newly elected individuals,” says Sudip Parikh, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “This year’s class embodies scientific excellence, fosters trust in science throughout the communities they serve, and leads the next generation of scientists while advancing scientific achievements.”

For more on BU’s AAAS Fellows, read the full story in The Brink.