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Research

Scott Yam

A Nexus of Networks for Learning

[Scott Yam]Professor Scott Yam cares about networks. That’s not surprising for an engineer who specializes in fibre optics. But Yam is also interested in creating networks that enhance his graduate students’ learning experience, expose them to cutting-edge research in government and industrial laboratories, and, once they have finished their degrees, help them ease relatively painlessly into the workplace.

It’s all part of the Next Generation Optical Networks (NGON) program run jointly by Queen’s, McGill and Laval. Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) through the Collaborative Research and Training (CREATE) initiative, the idea is to encourage integrative approaches to training, and foster state-of-the-art research and collaboration among different universities, government and the private sector that Canada needs to advance the field into the future.

With his research on the transmission of high-speed data (over thousands of kilometres of silica glass fibre no thicker than a strand of human hair), Yam represents one-sixth of the teaching power behind the academic heart of the NGON program, ELEC 868 – Simulation of Optical Communications Systems. Taken by students at all three universities (utilizing interactive software that enables students to raise questions and converse with the professors as well as students at other schools), this one-semester, online course teaches them how to model the performance of these systems numerically. “Our collective expertise,” says Yam of his colleagues, “spans a wide, complementary spectrum. While some of us specialize on the end-to-end system performance of an optical fibre link, others are experts in the opto-electronic components that enable these systems. And instead of having just two professors to call on at each institution, students now have access to six across all three.”

Students also take advantage of their professors’ own professional networks. Unlike most graduate programs, where students’ time is generally spent, as Yam puts it, “doing research and publishing papers,” those in NGON spend time outside their home university, taking up internships lasting anywhere from two months to a full year. “We place them in private industry, government labs, or other academic institutions nationally or internationally,” where they work on topics relevant to their research interests, with technical input from both their workplace and academic supervisors.

Internships have other benefits, too. “They give the industry an opportunity to screen potential employees. Is this person easy to work with? Is this person a team player? Does this person have the skill to prioritize resources for competing requirements on a project?” Thanks to the internships, says Yam, “Employers would already have a good idea before they hire.”

NGON works to enhance their students’ marketability in other ways, too. “At least once a year we round them all up in a workshop,” says Yam. “They get to meet one another, and we provide them with the ‘soft skills’ training that is generally missing from graduate programs – What are best practices in the workplace when operating capital-intensive test and measurement equipment? If you only have seven minutes in a weekly meeting with your front-line technical manager, how do you state your progress and develop a convincing case for scarce company resources? These are the sorts of things that everyone is looking for these days.”

“We’ve had trainers from Industry Canada come in to tell the trainees about intellectual property and trademark regulations. Recently, in June 2014, we had a serial entrepreneur visit from Genia Photonics (a start-up) to talk about commercialization.”

The approach seems to be working. “Over the years,” says Yam, “a significant number of our graduate students have been snatched up by the optical industry almost immediately after graduation.”

The students aren’t the only ones who benefit. “In the academic world,” says Yam, “researchers like us are very interested in how industry sees things.” Having students moving out into industry and then returning to the university helps this process. “We hope this will give us a better idea of where industry wants to be in five to ten years.”

Other graduate engineering programs at Queen’s are adopting the idea of graduate internships, in a modified style. And while NSERC’s funding for the program runs out at the end of the 2015-16 school year, Yam and his colleagues are convinced that the NGON should continue.

“Our work,” he says, “has just started.”

Ian Coutts
(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014

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Dr. Yam's research