Published: July 12, 2023 By

Jonathan Musgrave PhotoJonathan Musgrave has earned a 2023 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship for his promising research in laser physics and nonlinear photonics. 

Musgrave, a second year photonics and quantum engineering doctoral student, received the prestigious Department of Defense (DoD) fellowship. The fellowship was established to recognize and support science and engineering PhD students in disciplines of military importance. 

The award includes a three-year monthly stipend and coverage of tuition, fees and insurance, along with a $5,000 travel budget for professional development through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. 

This year, the DoD awarded 165 individuals at 68 institutions nationwide, including nine from CU Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science.

We sat down with Musgrave to share some thoughts on his research and how it could impact optics in the future. 

Where did your academic journey begin and how did you choose to study optics?

I knew I wanted to study physics and engineering and learn how things work. When I first studied physics at the University of Rochester it was unknown to me they were really well known for optical sciences. And that set me on this journey that optics was what interested me the most in physics, especially after doing research experiences during my undergraduate. My experience back home in Hawaii studying adaptive optics at the Institute for Astronomy was my main inspiration to pursue research. 

What is your specific area of research? 

Our lab fundamentally focuses on the intersection of light and matter and how they interact. This field of research has been vital for major technological developments, such as frequency combs. What I mostly focus on is developing novel laser systems. We leverage these lasers and high-intensity physics to study novel phenomena in non-linear systems. There’s a whole world of new opportunities that are yet to be worked on and I really think there's a lot of promise in this field, especially in mulitmode nonlinear photonics. 

What do you hope your laser optics research will inform? 

Lasers are used in almost every industry. We hope to solve matters in biomedical imaging, communication bandwidth and remote sensing. For instance, we are engineering a method to measure extremely low level fluorescence signals at a high sampling rate. We hope this will help in creating a non-invasive diagnostic tool for neurodegenerative disease. We focus on making the physics work and ultimately working with others to make these systems deployable.

What project are you focusing on for the fellowship? 

Scaling optical lasers to have greater power with high volume light cavities. In the field of photonics there is interest in studying the self-organization of high dimensional systems. By increasing the study of optics beyond just the temporal domain into the spatial domain a new breadth of technologies may be open to us. What we've proposed for this fellowship is to study some of these novel multimodal nonlinear phenomena that exist in space and time that are showing a lot of promise in our field right now. 

What does earning this fellowship mean to you and what most excites you about it? 

Grad school is very much a marathon and to be recognized by the community by receiving this fellowship was reaffirming to the work I have completed thus far. I'm very fortunate. In a year or two I’m hoping to visit a few labs and my dream would be to visit a few European institutions like the EPFL in Switzerland who are leaders in the field of optics. 

What has been one of the most fulfilling experiences for you here at CU Boulder? 

I mentored an undergraduate interested in research opportunities and laser science. It’s quite daunting as an undergraduate getting your foot in the door, but the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program is a great way for students to have a grad student mentor who’s been in their shoes. You not only teach them how to read journal articles, how to use Google Scholar, but also work on a research poster together. These are important skills that are transferable no matter what area of research you do. 

What's next for you after completing your PhD?

I always think of shooting for academia like shooting for the moon. I would love to be in a faculty position. As a TA, I love seeing the ‘aha’ moments when collaborating with my mentors and seeing undergraduate students that I’ve mentored come into their own. I love the field of optics and being in academia you get to define what you want to do and who you want to be. That freedom is invaluable to me. 

What are some hobbies that keep you grounded while not researching?

I'm an avid mountaineer, whether it’s hiking, running or skiing off them. There’s a lot of parallels between being in academia and being an athlete. You get to see yourself improve physically and it parallels your academic journey where you see yourself improve intellectually. A lot of engineers are type A and love data. In cardio and endurance sports  you get to watch yourself trend upward and learn every way to be more aerodynamic and improve. I love it. 

Is there anything else that you want our readers to know?

Our lab is open to having new students and we are always looking for students who are interested in learning more about optics and want to get their foot in the door in research and writing papers. If you're willing to just be curious about how things work and put in the time to learn, that's all you need.