Jay W. Dawson

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, United States

For leadership, innovations, and contributions to the understanding of fiber laser power scaling limits, development of spectrally selective fiber waveguiding structures for Nd3+ fibers, and lasers for future accelerators

“You shouldn’t pursue a STEM career – or any career – to make money or because it’s what you think others want for you. You need to be fascinated by the field you choose to pursue. Otherwise you might be overwhelmed by the inevitable challenges and hurdles,” says Jay Dawson. He adds that he cannot remember a time when he was not interested in science and notes that he “constantly read books about science and asked for science kits as gifts in elementary and middle school.” During his undergraduate career, laser and optical physics caught his attention because it “seemed like the future of physics.” As he continued his education, he focused his research on single frequency fiber lasers and completed his PhD on the subject at California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

Throughout his career, he’s continued working to realize the potential of fiber lasers. “The biggest challenges now are scaling the power of individual lasers, efficiently operating fiber lasers at wavelengths other than 1 µm, and developing pulsed fiber lasers,” he says. As Acting Program Director for Department of Defense Technologies within the National Ignition Facility & Photon Science Directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), he finds ways to use lasers and laser-based systems to provide solutions for pressing national security problems. Although he is in a management role now, he notes that an early management experience at 3M, where he was given more responsibility than he was ready for, was very challenging. His struggle in this role helped him to “understand his limits as an individual” and realize that he sometimes “needed to accept help and rely on others.” He says that the hard-won experience has helped him succeed in his current role.

In addition to getting help from colleagues and collaborators, Jay says that mentors have been very important. He explains that he had mentors for different aspects of his career, starting with his thesis advisor, Dr. Kerry Vahala at CalTech.  At 3M, James Onstott provided valuable guidance on the technical side and Dr. Alan Hulme-Lowe on the management side. At LLNL, he turned to Steve Payne for technical advice and Mike Carter for management advice. Talking through ideas and challenges with these mentors allowed him to benefit from their experience and perspective. He adds that “none of these were formal mentoring relationships” and explains that these were people he engaged with regularly who he realized he could learn from. “Look for these opportunities and make sure you engage with your mentors at least weekly, if not daily,” he advises. Outside of LLNL, Jay says OSA has “provided a framework to meet and interact with others who share my research interests” which has led to multi-institution collaborations. He adds that his career would have been more limited without these possibilities.

Overall, Jay thinks the field is “very healthy” and notes that new exciting research is happening such as “pushing the power levels in fiber lasers even higher and beam combination in pulsed and continuous wave lasers.” In his personal research, he says that the coolest discovery he has made is E-band fiber amplifier technology. “With the right filtering, we found we could achieve significant gain in 1400 nanometer and above wavelengths,” he explains. These results were unexpected based on past experiences and have the potential for large impact on the telecommunications industry.

When he’s not working, Jay enjoys traveling and says that he is fascinated by extreme environments, nature, and wildlife. He traveled to Antarctica a few years ago and recently to the Sea of Cortez with his family to look for whales. In the near future, he’s planning another family adventure to the polar regions.

Photo Credit: Jason Laurea/LLNL

Profile Written by Jeanette Gass