Shortly after he joined the Master's program in the Queen's University Electrical and Computer Engineering department, John Lam had an idea. And just like in the cartoons, it took the form of a light bulb.
"Lighting is one of the biggest power consumers in the world," says Lam, who in the fall of 2009, was working toward his doctorate. "My goal is to help change that."
Lam explains that much of the electrical engineering community is working toward eradicating the incandescent light bulb and replacing it with the longer-lasting, more energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). "The problem is that people aren't buying CFL bulbs as much as they should because in some ways, they aren't very practical," Lam says.
Part of the problem is that CFL bulbs are still more expensive than their incandescent counterparts. Another part is that they aren't as versatile. "People like the dimming capability of incandescent bulbs," says Lam. "Unfortunately, dimmers don't exist for CFL bulbs." Lam's research is changing that. Along with his supervisor, Dr. Praveen Jain, Lam has been working on a new circuit for CFL bulbs that will allow them to work with dimmers.
Their work is attracting a lot of attention. "We often have visitors coming to the lab to see what we're doing," Lam says. "We've got a prototype for the new circuit now, and people from the corporate and academic worlds are interested in seeing how it works."
With such active interest in his work, Lam knows that he has a bright future ahead of him. "I could work on the industry side as a design engineer or on the academic side as an assistant professor," he says. For now though, he's devoting his energy to finishing his thesis. "That's all I have time for right now," he laughs.
Lam's biggest challenge these days comes in his work as a Teaching Assistant as he tries to instil his undergraduate students with the same spark that he brings to his work every day. "I'd like to see them make the link in their minds between the theoretical and the practical sides," he says. But he admits that -- even for him -- that passion didn't truly light up until he entered graduate school.
Along with his family, Lam left his native Hong Kong in 1996, while he was still in high school. He came to Queen's in 1999, drawn by the Engineering department's stellar reputation. After graduation, he chose to enter the Master's program because he felt it was a safer alternative to entering the workforce.
"What I discovered once I started the Master's program was that electronics can be very creative," he says. "You can create something that's helpful to society, and that inspired me to spend my time working on the circuit and figuring out the technical issues that need to be solved. It's a field where you can really make a difference."