An Interview With the Professor Behind CU Boulder’s Active Optical Devices Specialization

Discover how photonics and semiconductors are impacting everything from transportation to healthcare and learn how you can start preparing for a career in electrical engineering.

This is an exciting time to be pursuing an electrical engineering degree. Electrical engineers are shaping the future of transportation, pioneering new approaches to healthcare, and addressing the current chip shortage impacting global supply chains.

University of Colorado Boulder Professor Juliet Gopinath, PhD, is helping build the next generation of electrical engineers through research focused on photonics and quantum engineering and teaching on campus. Among many accomplishments, she has created the Active Optical Devices Specialization for the Master of Science in Electrical Engineering on Coursera.

We spoke with Professor Gopinath recently about her background, the MS-EE program, and her Active Optical Devices Specialization on Coursera.

Can you tell us a bit about your engineering background and why you chose to teach at the University of Colorado Boulder?

I am a fifth-generation engineer. I had been interested in science and math from a young age, so I studied electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Afterward, I applied to the electrical engineering program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and began my graduate work. At MIT, I had the chance to be part of a world-renowned Ultrafast Optics group. I studied the dynamics of electrons and holes in semiconductors with light, and I was blown away by how much you could learn.

When I graduated, I took a job at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where I built high-power lasers, including semiconductor lasers. In 2009, I had the opportunity to move to the University of Colorado Boulder and join the Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering and Physics Departments.

What led you to create the Active Optical Devices Specialization on Coursera, and what kind of opportunity does this program represent for aspiring electrical engineers? 

After I joined CU-Boulder, I started teaching a course on Active Optical Devices—and really fell in love with it. The material was not only interesting, but useful. When I was on sabbatical, a colleague approached me about putting these courses on Coursera.

My dad is from India, and I know I’m privileged to have had these educational opportunities. People in other countries, especially women, often don’t have the same opportunities to take courses in electrical engineering or access higher education. I wanted to put my classes online as my way to give back and increase access to these topics.

What kind of background should students have if they want to take this next step on their career journey?

In order to study photonics, you need to have taken an undergraduate class in electromagnetics. This is the core curriculum for both electrical engineering and physics. It’s also extremely helpful if you have taken a basic Semiconductor Physics course, such as the one my colleague Professor Wounjhang Park has launched on Coursera.

Can you share some thoughts on why you’d recommend pursuing the MS-EE program as a foundation for professional skills?

The MS-EE program is a fantastic opportunity. You can earn your master’s without leaving your living room. Education is work, but it allows us to continue to innovate and change lives. If you are interested in photonics and semiconductors, this Specialization is a great way to learn the building blocks that you would need for a communications system or other optical system. 

Why are photonics and optics such important topics for future electrical engineers?

Photonics and optics really touch every part of your life—from the LiDAR remote sensing used to monitor natural disasters or assist with self-driving cars, to retina scanning used in eye exams. When you go to the supermarket and scan your item at checkout, a laser is involved. When you take part in a Zoom call, there’s an optical fiber that carries the discussion and video. Lasers are even used for defense, such as with standoff detection.

We’re hearing a lot about electrical engineering and lasers in the news lately. Do you think this is having an impact on hiring demand, and if so, why?

Lasers are used in the manufacturing of semiconductor chips. Right now, there’s a global shortage of chips that is impacting car manufacturing and more. Discussions are taking place about increasing this chip manufacturing in the United States. Learning the physics of semiconductors and interaction with light (optoelectronics) is essential. There is a considerable need for electrical engineers with knowledge in this subject area.

What should students expect upon enrolling in the program?

The first course of the Specialization, Light Emitting Diodes and Semiconductor Lasers, is definitely the toughest, but students can ask questions and engage with the course facilitator. It’s hard work, but students are able to reap the benefits and apply their knowledge to real-world problems after completion.

We hear you have an excellent course facilitator. How does he help current students?

Yes! The course facilitator, Allen Xu, collaborates with students in these Coursera classes—answering questions in discussion forums, giving pointers on starting homework, and helping improve the course based on student feedback. He graduated from the MS-EE program and completed the Active Optical Devices Specialization, so he understands students’ needs and has been inspired by the topic.

Thank you for taking the time to share your insights, and for building such an important program to support learners eager to move into this high-impact career field!


Professor Gopinath teaches three courses on Coursera, which make up the Active Optical Devices Specialization:

  • Light Emitting Diodes and Semiconductor Lasers: This course explores semiconductor light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and lasers, as well as the important rules for their analysis, planning, design, and implementation.
  • Nanophotonics and Detectors: This course examines nanophotonic light-emitting devices and optical detectors, including metal semiconductors, metal semiconductor insulators, and pn junctions. The curriculum also covers photoconductors, avalanche photodiodes, and photomultiplier tubes.
  • Displays: This course dives into electronic display devices, including liquid crystals, electroluminescent, plasma, organic light-emitting diodes, and electrowetting-based displays. Students also learn about various design principles, affordances and liabilities, and a variety of applications in the real world of professional optics.

Students who take these courses can apply their academic credit towards the 100% online, flexible Master of Science in Electrical Engineering (MS-EE) program—the only top-ranked online electrical engineering graduate program with no application and performance-based admission.*

*Optimal’s Guide to Online School, 2020 Best Online Master’s in Electrical Engineering Degrees in the US

The post An Interview With the Professor Behind CU Boulder’s Active Optical Devices Specialization appeared first on Coursera Blog.

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