A Lucent researcher talks about the thrills of discovery

In this Tech Watch, Bob Weinstein talks with Lucent's Bill Wilson about his life as a technical researcher and his six-year pet project, holographic storage.

What does it take to be a research scientist?

"An insatiable curiosity and drive to find answers." So says Bill Wilson, a distinguished scientist (highest ranking scientist) at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ.

Scientists like Wilson are responsible for virtually every technological innovation that has shaped and changed our lives. Like all research scientists, Wilson is driven by the passion of discovery and the unexplainable rewards that accompany seeing the fruits of his research.

"When I get interested in something, it doesn't bother me that I know nothing about it," he explains. "I simply learn."

Once immersed in a project, he puts in 12-hour days and Saturdays as well. He'd work seven days a week if he could, but Wilson says it's not allowed. A company rule? No, his wife’s.

Wilson, 40, is so excited about what he does that he practically speaks at the speed of light, flinging technical terms around that would baffle seasoned techies. And although he may sound like a recruiting tool for Lucent, he truly means the positive things he says about the company, which is why he's been with them for 13 years.

The opportunity to keep learning
Even Wilson is surprised he's stayed at Lucent this long.

His plan after he earned his Ph.D. in chemical physics at Stanford University was to either take a teaching post at a university or get a corporate job. He nixed the university setting because most schools are "five years behind the times," he said. But teaching school also didn't suit his personality: "I have a lab-rat mentality. I have to know how things work."

He chose Bell Labs because of the high number of research projects it conducted. The company also employs 30,000 engineers and 600 scientists involved in wide-ranging software and engineering projects.

Wilson's reason for staying at Bell Labs is simple: "I'm having fun and I'm always learning," he said, smiling. And he can practically get involved in any project that turns him on.

Holographic storage
Wilson's latest obsession, for example, is a holographic-storage project, which he's been working on for six years. He calls holographic storage "the Holy Grail of photonics."

How does it work? Here’s a short, layman’s description: "Unlike conventional technologies which record data bit by bit, holography allows a million bits of data to be written and read out in single flashes of light, enabling data transfer rates as high as a billion bits per second (fast enough to transfer a DVD movie in about 30 seconds).”

Much of the technology that Wilson and his colleagues develop is far ahead of its time. But, he estimates holographic technology will be incorporated into disk drives over the next three to five years. "People will have the ability to distribute information that they can't now," he said. "For example, distributing video over a server is really difficult [at this time]."

How Wilson's holographic research got under way tells a lot about how Bell Labs works. "One afternoon after lunch, a few of the scientists and myself got into a huge argument about whether holographic storage was nonsense," Wilson said. He was out to prove them wrong.

"For the most part, projects are fundamentally driven by enthusiasm, not deadlines," he explains. "It's as simple as you wander into someone's office with a good idea, and you convince a few of the scientists that their life will have no meaning unless they work on [this particular] project." Hundreds of Bell Labs' projects have been launched that way.

The best part, according to Wilson, is there is little to no bureaucracy to contend with in getting a project off the ground. "Even if you tried to make it [a bureaucracy], it wouldn't work because of the culture at the lab," he says. "For the most part, research teams are not created by managers. They percolate from the bottom up."

"There is also a culture here that people can really build empires," Wilson adds. "There is a natural, almost organic mechanism for scientists with different skills to get together and work on projects together. You can be far more productive working with others than you can alone."
How did you end up in your current job? Is your work environment as productive as Wilson’s? Send us an e-mail or post a comment below.

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