Lasers Bring Focus to Paul Leisher's Educational Experiences

Tuesday, March 01, 2016
Paul Leisher Article

Loving Lasers: Paul Leisher, associate professor of physics and optical engineering, uses a variety of laser and optics research projects to enhance students' educational experiences.

The sky is literally the limit for physics and optical engineering professor Paul Leisher and his motivation to provide Rose-Hulman students with unlimited opportunities to explore their interests in laser technology.

A $500,000 grant from NASA will have Leisher and several undergraduate- and graduate-level students spending the next two years designing and testing semiconductor lasers that communicate optically at very high speeds in a free-space environment. The project is one of 15 university-led proposals selected by NASA under the Early Stage Innovations 2015 program.

This is just the latest example of Leisher's passion to combine research, his expertise in high-power semiconductor diode lasers, and teaching about the physics of lasers and optical systems. He has served as principal investigator/technical lead on more than 40 government- and industry-funded research and development programs, assisted by more than $14 million in funding from external sources.

"I want students to share my appreciation for lasers and their boundless possibilities in advancing technology," says the associate professor. "We have really great students here and I want to give them as many opportunities as possible to do world-class research."

Students involved in the projects have been lead authors of peer-reviewed research papers featured in national scientific journals and other publications, and also have made presentations at professional conferences throughout the world. These opportunities have opened doors to attend elite graduate school programs, working alongside some of America's top researchers in their fields.

"I'm proud of our students and their amazing abilities. We're working with the best of the best," he says. "We're spreading Rose-Hulman's academic reputation by showcasing the work our students are doing in our laboratories. Then, as graduate students, they're expanding their knowledge and opening new worlds in science."

That's what happened for Leisher. He went to college with an interest in electrical engineering and software programming, in particular control systems and digital signal processing. Then, lasers caught his attention in graduate school. "Lasers were cool," he says.

His ultimate goal was to become a college professor. However, he knew that some industrial experience would enhance his academic credentials. After leading the advanced technology group at nLight Corporation, concentrating on research and development projects, he joined the Rose-Hulman faculty in 2011.

"I knew Rose-Hulman was a place I could teach lasers to undergraduates, so it was the place for me. I didn't apply anywhere else," he says.

Leisher teaches a variety of courses, from introductory physics to geometrical optics to semiconductor fabrication. In class, he tries to steer as much toward the practical as possible. "We spend a lot more time working the problems than we do discussing the theory and writing down lectures," he says. In fact, he often hands out lecture notes-albeit incomplete notes that students must fill in as they listen.

And, of course, Leisher teaches about lasers. "I can't believe I get paid to talk about lasers," he says.