Jerry Woodall on Science and Technology Careers That Matter
In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, Jerry Woodall shares insights from his long career working in industry and academia. An inventor and scientist, Jerry is best known for developing the first commercially-viable red LEDs used in automobile brake lights and traffic lights, CD/DVD players, TV remote controls, and computer networks. He received the US National Medal of Technology and Innovation for “his pioneering role in the research and development of compound semiconductor materials and devices.” Currently Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), Jerry served as ECS President from 1990-1991. ECS awarded Jerry the Electronics Division Award (1980), Solid State Science and Technology Award (1985), Edward Goodrich Acheson Award (1998), and named him a Fellow of The Electrochemical Society (1992).
Be Ready to Make an Impact
“I worked at IBM Research for much of my career. Then I became a professor, first at Purdue, then Yale, and now at UC Davis where I intend to spend the rest of my career. In retrospect, it’s clear that the period between 1960 and Y2K was extraordinary. It was a ‘golden era’ at Bell Labs and IBM. People were encouraged and expected to ‘go ahead and do your thing.’ We were funded without answering a lot of questions. That said, something had to happen every now and then; otherwise, you couldn’t continue ‘playing in the sandbox,’ as we called it.
We worked on some real breakthroughs. My research at IBM was on compound semiconductors—work that turned into LEDs, lasers, and smartphones. There are now billions of them. I don’t get a nickel, but that’s okay; I had fun doing it. I’ve never been to ‘work’ in my life. I get paid for doing stuff that I would do for free!
This ‘build it and they will come’ era ended around 2000. That’s about when I began to notice a shift in technology development priorities, from improving devices and machines to solving problems to improve the human condition. The focus is now more about making an impact. I see papers from colleagues who were working on widgets ten years ago; now they are working on social and environmental technology solutions. With a colleague in France, I’m working on global-scale solar energy storage.”
Do What You’re Good At
“I train my students to think outside the box. I ask my PhD students to do original research on topics that have never been worked on before. I want them to write ‘paper number one’ in their field. I also ask them to assess themselves to find out what they are really good at, and recommend that they guide their careers accordingly. A secret to success is working on things that are easy and fun. The bottom line is, plan your career around things you are good at.
Some of my students want to go into academia, others into industry. Some prefer large companies for the stability. Others are having fun at startups. The experience they’re getting is valuable. Even if the startup fails, getting their next job often isn’t a problem—most large employers know the problems startups face.
I advise students who are heading to academia that it can be difficult to get funding for basic research that leads to later applications. They need to match their research interests to what federal agencies ask for. My main message to students is, whatever direction your career takes, think about how you can have an impact on the human condition and our planet. Our field touches on everything from the future of food to energy and more.”
Teaching is Sacred
“Normally, this is when I go to the only conferences I attend all year. That’s because I never travel when courses are in session. Teaching is sacred to me. With COVID-19, I am not traveling at all. Yet it hasn’t caused significant disruption in my teaching life. I check in weekly with my 14 students (PhD and MS candidates, and undergraduates) by Zoom. The undergraduates learn about lab projects. If it sparks a student’s interest, they have a chance to speak with the project leader and even get involved.
I offer a course on compound semiconductor materials and devices. The students teach the course by preparing presentations on a topic in the syllabus. They increase their knowledge of an important field and improve their communication skills, which is essential to their future success.”
Adaptation and the Future
“A big problem for universities now is how to continue experimental research. Closing universities is impeding progress in the labs. It’s hard to replace. Zoom is fine for classwork, but we need the labs.
COVID is going to change the world forever. As a community, we need novel networking techniques. Zoom is only one of them. ECS is already organized by division affinity groups. There are great opportunities to help people connect. Why not expand Venkat Viswanathan’s Battery Hour meet-up program? We could have ’ECS hour.’ I think these opportunities will become very popular. I’m presenting my first virtual conference presentation at the Electronics Materials Conference on June 26. These are good developments, but I doubt online engagement will replace meetings. More ideas and opportunities come from face-to-face conversations and having a cup of coffee together.”