Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Dr. Kenneth Lee

Information technology has improved our lives, but to continue to enjoy its benefits, we need to ensure that science and engineering win the war for talent, Dr. Kenneth Lee says.

Kenneth Lee
Scientific Director
Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES)
Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART)

AsianScientist (Dec. 9, 2015) – Every time you switch on your computer or use a digital camera, you are making use of complementary metal-oxide semiconductor technology, or CMOS. Microchips and integrated circuits built using CMOS have revolutionized information technology, roughly doubling the number of components every two years.

Even so, we are beginning to reach the limits of this phenomenal increase, dubbed Moore’s law after the co-founder of Intel, Gordon E. Moore. Researchers like Dr. Kenneth Lee, however, are not sitting still but actively working on developing new integrated circuits that are even more efficient.

Currently the scientific director of the Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES) Interdisciplinary Research Group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), Lee is responsible for driving the core program effort to create a novel hybrid III-V + CMOS platform to enable new integrated electronic and photonic systems.

Prior to this, Lee served in the Future Systems and Technology Directorate of the Ministry of Defence, Singapore, where he managed a portfolio of approximately S$110 million (~US$78.3 million) worth of R&D projects in photonic and electro-optical technologies. He has also served on various grant and project review panels for the Science and Engineering Research Council of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

What influenced you to go into the field of semiconductors?

In grade school, science was always the subject I did best in, and thus it came to pass that physics became my favorite subject. Back in the day, conventional wisdom held that engineering held better career prospects than “hard science” (i.e. physics), and so I ended up doing electrical engineering as the closest proxy I could find to physics.

In my second year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I took a course on semiconductor microfabrication, stepped into a cleanroom, and literally fell in love with the field. The ability to impact things on the micro-/nano-scale while adjusting knobs and settings in the macro-scale real-world is still one of the things that truly amazes me.

Dr. Kenneth Lee (in blue) working in the cleanroom. Credit: Kenneth Lee/SMART.
Dr. Kenneth Lee (in blue) working in the cleanroom. Credit: Kenneth Lee/SMART.

How would you describe your research to a layperson?

Creating integrated circuits of the future by enabling the pairing of non-CMOS materials with traditional silicon circuits.

Here’s a video of my current work:

What is one research project that you are proudest of and why?

We just completed designing our very first prototype chip at SMART LEES that incorporates novel materials into standard silicon CMOS circuits. This posed significant challenges as it involved getting various groups from academia and industry foundries partners (like Globalfoundries and TowerJazz Panasonic Semiconductor) to pull in the same direction.

Each group had their own areas of competence and preferred directions. But this creative tension led to innovative solutions that are paving the way for the integrated circuits of the future! It was highly satisfying to complete this phase and now I am looking forward to the next innovation iteration.

What is in store for the field of LEES research in the next decade?

I hope that LEES’ research will go towards extending the amazing technological and societal progress that the world has experienced in the digital revolution over the last five decades.

The advances in computing and the Internet have been enabled by the scaling of transistors according to Moore’s Law, but it is reaching physical and economic limits. Our fundamental materials science innovations will hopefully allow us to continue to advance the performance of electronic and optical devices far into the future beyond Moore’s Law. This will have far-reaching impact on applications we use every day such as the Internet of Things (IoT), mobile devices and even drones.

A wefie of the LEES team at the Oktoberfest celebration at SMART. Credit: Kenneth Lee/SMART.
A wefie of the LEES team at the Oktoberfest celebration at SMART. Credit: Kenneth Lee/SMART.

If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

When one reads about calamitous events such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters today, one naturally wonders if one could build a simulation tool to predict these events before they actually occur, so that one has a chance to take efficacious pre-emptive action. The movie “Minority Report” comes to mind (especially when it comes to man-made events), and while it was clearly viewed as science fiction at the time, the advent of big data and analytics is perhaps bringing that fiction ever closer to reality.

Of course, “solving” this problem will likely result in unintended consequences and bring about a whole host of other challenges, such as how to navigate personal privacy and data protection issues, which might turn out to be even larger problems! I guess this just goes to show that there will always be problems for scientists and researchers to tackle, and space for human ingenuity and curiosity to explore.

What would you say is the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix it?

Academia, and more broadly, science and engineering, is losing the war for talent. Many of the brightest minds today often opt for more glamorous or better compensated career paths, and the loss of potential talent can take place very early on, when students pursue educational choices that all but shut the door on future science or engineering careers.

We need to examine early educational curriculums, to ensure that they are able to engage and inspire bright students to pursue degrees in the STEM disciplines. This at least gives us a chance to groom talented researchers who otherwise might never have considered a career in research.

In the course of your own career, what have been the most difficult hurdles to overcome?

Funding is always a concern, but often the challenge is being able to get sustained support for one’s research. Even in cases where a previous research project successfully achieved all its technical goals, it can be a challenge to secure follow-on funding, as R&D funders are increasingly focused short-term KPIs and outcomes. This makes it harder to initiate or sustain research programs that require longer gestational periods.

It is disheartening for a scientist to be told that his chosen research area, in which he might have invested a significant part of his career, is no longer a priority for funding support.

Dr. Kenneth Lee on the SMART campus. Credit: Kenneth Lee/SMART.
Dr. Kenneth Lee on the SMART campus. Credit: Kenneth Lee/SMART.

If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

I would have liked to have been an engineer working on cars, ideally on an F1 racing team, or a supercar company. If being an engineer is too close to being a scientist, then probably a financial analyst. Gathering data, critically analyzing it, acting on it, and then reviewing the outcome to see if I was right or wrong, is something that appeals to me.

On the personal front, what do you do outside of work to relax?

Keeping up with my three kids, if that can be considered relaxing! They are at ages now where it is just very interesting to observe them at play and interacting with each other, and/or with their imaginary friends. Joining in their play time can also be very enriching—I have gained much knowledge about Shopkins, My Little Ponies and Marvel Superheroes, among other toys, that I probably would not have, were it not for my kids.

Beyond that, trading/investing in the US stock market (the time differences make it the perfect after work activity) and following the New England Patriots in the US National Football League.

Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring young researchers in Asia?

Research and innovation are increasingly global endeavors. Problems and solutions are much more complex and multi-disciplinary than before, and require more resources for successful outcomes, which make collaborations far more important. At the same time, the Internet age has made it far easier to work together with others while physically separated by geography, and has significantly levelled the playing field.

Thus, rather than view globalization as a possible (competitive) threat, one should embrace it and adapt one’s thinking as to how best to form and work in synergistic collaboration with others. All and this and more can be realized at CREATE, where innovative places like SMART LEES thrive.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Kenneth Lee/SMART.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

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