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Alumni Spotlight: Christopher Ayala (Class of 2014)

Posted on Friday, June 7, 2024 by for Alumni Spotlight.

Selfie of Chris Ayala

Chris Ayala is an alumni of the Midwood Science Research program who worked on the project "Encoding Information with Light's Angular Momentum" with Dr. Giovanni Milione. He graduated in 2014, and since then, has continued his interest in research as a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. He's currently the President of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the Vice President of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). Aside from his passion for physics, Ayala enjoys scuba diving and drone photography in his free time. He also loves to cuddle his cat-daughter Kyoshi. I got the opportunity to interview him and see what he's been up to these past 10 years and what advice he has for current students in the research program.

Masha: What did you do during your time as a part of Science Research?

Chris: To encompass what I've done during my time at Midwood Science Research was build a really solid understanding of what I liked and did not like about research.There was a sophomore science research class in which we were able to partake in research projects that we were able to think of ourselves and that helped [kindle] my beginning interest in science research. It wasn't until the summer of sophomore year where I asked Mr. Elert what other options there were to keep my summer occupied. He had given me a connection to a PhD student he knew at City College University. I think just that experience alone helped determine that what I wanted to do was to study lasers.

Chukwunonso Nwasike, Akeem Pinnock, and Chris Ayala at the 2014 National ACT-SO

After successfully completing two Bachelor's degrees in Applied Mathematics and Physics at SUNY Stony Brook, Ayala continued his studies at the University of Michigan, but not before taking an opportunity that would further his interests even more.

Chris: I took a gap year after I graduated and deferred my acceptance to the University of Michigan where I worked in the meantime at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa for a year, working on quantum imaging research for a year. After that I came back and started my PhD at the University of Michigan, where I currently am a 5th year PhD candidate working for the Steven Cundiff Research Lab.

Chris's experimental setup

Masha: What would your PhD specifically be in?

Chris: My PhD specifically focuses on the study of interaction of light — mostly visible light, up to infrared — and the interaction of semiconductor materials which are used in your everyday electronics, specifically wide gap materials. Then, that produces high harmonic generation, which is a process which produces higher frequency light after the interaction with the semiconductor metal. So, I'm effectively taking visible light and then changing its frequency to ultraviolet.

Masha: What do you like most about what you do?

Chris: I get to shoot lasers and play with lasers. I think that really hasn't changed from when Mr. Elert asked me that as a sophomore in high school. He asked, "Do you want to work with this PhD student who works with lasers?" and as a 14 year old kid, I said, "Yes please!" Now I find myself as a "semi expert in the field of lasers."

Masha: Did you ever encounter any difficulties throughout your career?

Chris: Yeah. As an experimentalist, one of the biggest issues you really face is your own experimental setup. Many of my issues have mainly been due to laser error, but, I think, in the long run, these issues have also — in a twist of fate — helped me understand the laser better and my foundational knowledge of it. But, overall, the main challenge of it has been a little bit of motivation in trying to get these things to work and being in school for so long.

If you would like to read more about Chris's favorite memories of Science Research or other advice he has for students, click here to read a transcript of the full interview.

Masha Bazilevich (Class of 2024)