Alumni Spotlight: Christopher Ayala

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.

Masha: Is there any specific thing that you did in Science Research that was memorable?

Chris: The person that I worked with at the laboratory and a bunch of other [Senior Research] scientists made it to the finals of NYCSEF and we were able to present our research under the big blue humpback whale in the [American] Museum of Natural History. That was a very memorable moment.

Masha: I would be very scared.

Chris: That it would fall?

Masha: Yeah.

Chris: That's okay. We would only lose a couple hundred scientists!

Masha: What did you do after Midwood?

Chris: As I finished Midwood High School, I progressed on to doing my Bachelor's in Applied Mathematics and Physics at SUNY Stony Brook.

Masha: Was this a double major or one major?

Chris: Double major. I started in physics and then in my second year I attached my mathematics and statistics degree.

Masha: Did you do any research at Stony Brook?

Chris: I was able to participate in a year or so of research, but I was mainly focused on classes. During that time, I did participate in a research experience as an undergrad in REU, and this was mentioned to me by Elert and my advisor, Giovanni. In that time, I was able to spend two months in Paris funded by the National Science Foundation working with a national research lab in Paris.

Masha: What research did you do there?

Chris: I specifically studied the interaction between super continuum light and biological samples using fluorescence spectroscopy.

Masha: And then you moved on to UMichigan?

Chris: Yeah, 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 Cundith Research Lab.

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.

Chris's experimental setup

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 of course in trying to get these things to work and being in school for so long.

Masha: How many hours do you spend in the lab per week or per day?

Chris: Per day varies because now my entire job is getting paid to do research. So, I'm not entirely in the lab all day, I'm either working on some piece of code or reading something. I'd say, in the lab, [I spend] around 20 hours a week. But, I'm getting paid overall for 40 hours a week still.

Masha: And you're getting paid by the University of Michigan?

Chris: Yes so because I'm a PhD student in STEM, the [university] covers your tuition and pays you a stipend of some amount depending on which state you're in and all the other factors. I get my tuition waived and I get a monthly stipend to cover rent, food, and some other basic living supplies.

Masha: When you first started out, did you spend more time in the lab?

Chris: When you first start out, it's mainly focusing on classes. A quick breakdown of the PhD is that in your first one to three years, you're taking classes based on your research, like fundamental physics, and then more specified into your research. Once you take your candidacy, that means you're solely focusing on your research for the [remaining] duration of your PhD. So, I'm on the latter half, and it really is dependent on yourself in that you don't really have a schedule anymore. It's just forcing yourself to get the work done and [the experiment] actually deciding to work if it wants to.

Masha: Do you have any advice for students looking to gain research experience after they graduate Midwood?

Chris: The biggest piece of advice that I have is to try it and see if you like it through various means of whatever avenue they can find — via an internship in the summer, spending some time per week in the lab while you're an undergrad. I would say the biggest thing is to try it out, spend a semester or two in that lab, in that internship, and see if you actually like doing it. People have these expectations that "this will lead to this" and "this will lead to that" but if you get there, at the end of all that, and then realize that "oh, I actually don't like spending any time here at all," then you don't want to have wasted all your time. All these ways in which you can try it earlier would be better. I think the one I mentioned, what I did in college, is available for students from first year all the way to senior year. They mainly look for more senior undergrad students so that they can recruit you to their grad school program. But mainly, the National Science Foundation — NSF, REU grants. That is the one that all people leaving Midwood should look into because they host a variety of different research topics in a variety of different states.

Masha: Do you have any advice for students pursuing science and beyond, whether that be research or pre-healthcare, majors like that?

Chris: In that aspect, as a broader STEM, I would say that there are many ways to pursue STEM research and it doesn't always have to be PhD. There are other options. It doesn't have to be the end-all be-all. The main thing after deciding whether or not you want to do [something] is "How can I achieve this?" There are many ways to get to that goal, and you don't have to feel stuck or feel bad if you can't achieve it in one way.

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 Bazilevich (Class of 2024)

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