Nathaniel Hermosa II
Photonics Research Laboratory
National Institute of Physics, University of the Philippines Diliman
AsianScientist (Feb. 23, 2018) – Students are taught that the speed of light is constant, at approximately 300,000 km/s in a vacuum. But Associate Professor of Physics at the University of the Philippines Diliman Nathaniel Hermosa II and his team at the University of the Philippines Diliman have managed to ‘twist’ light and slow it down.
Their paper documenting these findings was published in Scientific Reports and was named one of its most-read articles in 2016. For this discovery, which could have far-reaching implications in the field of next-generation optical computers and telecommunication systems, Hermosa received the 2017 Eduardo A. Quisumbing Medal and the 2017 Outstanding Research and Development Award from the Department of Science and Technology of the Philippines. He was also recognized as an outstanding young scientist by the National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines.
Besides excelling in research and mentoring students in the Photonics Laboratory, Hermosa actively promotes research by Filipino scientists via his blog, Imprints of Philippine Science. In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Hermosa shares his passion for photonics, the need for science communications and his aspirations for the future.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
I play with light to seek the universe’s secrets.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
Honestly, I don’t think that I’ve completed any project yet. If you mean a project where I submitted a final report and financial statement, then I’ve only finished one. Regardless, I am proud of all the research topics in my lab.
My former principal investigator at the institute of Photonic Sciences said that there is no point in working on a project that you will not enjoy or will not be proud of. I don’t know if that philosophy is correct, though. Some projects that are boring can challenge me such that they bring out the best (and the worst) in me.
- What’s the most interesting part of your workweek?
Every first Monday of the month, our group has this ‘Crazy Idea Monday’ where we discuss ideas and projects that are so fantastic that people may not have thought of them yet. Think sci-fi, but backed by strong conceptual and mathematical physics, as well as back-of-the-envelope calculations.
We question even the most fundamental concepts of physics. Sometimes it borders on the absurd, but hey, it is not called crazy for nothing! Still, we have to make sure that the science behind each project is sound, and some concepts can be easily proven through simple experiments.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I wish my lab had more equipment to perform more experiments on different tracks. I want to venture into biological research. We’re very competent with the concepts of optics. Maybe it’s time to apply these concepts in other fields such as biology or medical fields. Cancer diagnostics, for one, can benefit from photonics.
I also want to carry out more fundamental research. We have highly-skilled researchers who could do such research, but what we need is the determination to fund such projects.. To establish an innovative and ground-breaking technology, you should have a solid foundation of concepts that you can play with, or a new concept to start with.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
My field of specialization was materials physics, but I tried to deviate from the usual research topics as I wanted to be a well-rounded researcher. Usually, if you’re going to take materials physics as a specialization, you go to the condensed matter physics laboratory, or the liquid crystal laboratory.
Instead, I decided to take up an apprenticeship in the laser physics group in 1997. This led to me ‘playing around’ with the structuring of light in 1999, but in the end, it paved the way for my eventual career in photonics and optics.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
Imbalance of funding is one challenge, but the greater challenge is the perception that science must be applicable for it to make sense. It is a problem because for three reasons.
Firstly, more funding is funnelled to short term research, while research topics with no immediate utility do not get funded. Secondly, it limits the ‘grandness’ of science, or of knowing things beyond ourselves or beyond our needs. Thirdly, it develops a culture of just reinventing the wheel. There will be no new breakthroughs.
The solution? Better science communication could be a good starting point.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
A back-up singer, perhaps? That was one of my dream jobs when I was younger. Or probably a mathematician. But I honestly don’t know what else I would do aside from physics. I started down this career path a long time ago, and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.
If I had followed my parents’ wishes, I would be a lawyer now. It’s not that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, it’s just that I wanted to be a physicist more.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I read to relax. I have just finished reading Nick Joaquin’s works. Joaquin was a famous Filipino journalist and author. I’ve read his 1977 Reportage on Crime and Reportage on Lovers books. I am really amazed and in awe of his works—the prose, the logic, they’re near perfection. I’m determined to read his other works in the future.
But honestly, I don’t believe in work-life balance. Rather, I believe in constructive diversion, which means doing things that enrich you personally or professionally. For example, when reading a book or watching a movie, I sometimes feel challenged to look at things through a different lens.
In science, it is important that you attack even your most cherished ideas. It is a constant battle. Knowing how to see things from different perspectives really helps. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t have an anchor. In my field, my ‘initial’ anchor is Maxwell’s equations. I call it ‘initial’ because it certainly is not the ultimate answer, but it is a good place to start.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would eradicate indifference, but how do I do that with my research?
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Hold on and let go! I have always believed that science and research benefit from the diversity of thoughts and ideas. Asia is much more diverse but also not so assertive. My advice is: hold on to being Asians, but let go and be people of the world.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Nathaniel Hermosa II.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.