U of T news

MIT's Technology Review names Joyce Poon to “Top 35 Under 35”

Assistant Professor Joyce Poon, Electrical and Computer Engineering (photo by Jason KB)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s magazine, Technology Review, has named Assistant Professor Joyce Poon one of the world’s top 35 innovators under the age of 35.

The electrical and computing engineering professor is one of this year’s “TR35”. Selected by a panel of expert judges and the editorial staff of Technology Review, the TR35 recognizes young researchers who are tackling important problems in transformative ways and opening up new possibilities in technology.

Previous members of the TR35 include the founders of Google, Facebook and Linux. This year’s group includes Drew Houston, maker of Dropbox, Daniel Ek, inventor of Spotify, and Ben Silbermann, creator of Pinterest.

“I am honoured by the recognition which is as much for the excellent students in my research group as it is for me,” says Poon, 32. “The MIT TR35 is just a first step as we strive to be the best in the world at what we do.  We have a lot of research ahead of us."

Using optics or light signals, Poon - along with PhD student Wesley Sacher - demonstrated a faster, more energy-efficient way to transmit data than the traditional method which relies on electronic signals.

While many researchers seek a way to replace today’s electronic signals with light signals, only Poon’s team has figured out a way to make that light-based data transmission affordable over short distances. The breakthrough is thanks to the unique design of their device, known as an optical modulator. 

Poon’s design, which sends laser light looping around tiny rings attached to a computer chip, is the first optical modulator to be both fast and energy-efficient.

Technology Review, which describes Poon’s creation as a “tiny roller coaster of light”, predicts it could be the breakthrough that keeps data centers cool.

“The jump to optical data transmission in servers can’t come soon enough,” says Technology Review reporter Neil Savage. “Data centers consumed at least 200 billion kilowatt-hours’ worth of power in 2010, and the proliferation of smartphones and cloud storage is only going to push that higher, driving up costs and the risk of heat-related outages.”

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Poon, who completed her undergraduate studies at U of T, spoke about returning to her alma mater after receiving her PhD at California Institute of Technology.

“It was people – the student quality, that’s what really motivated me to come back. To do research, it has to be a whole team. We rely heavily on graduate-student researchers, and undergraduates become graduate students. It is really the No. 1 key to success.”

Poon is profiled in the September/October issue of Technology Review. She will also be honoured at the EmTech MIT conference, taking place October 24-26 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Joyce Poon’s achievements would be remarkable for any researcher, but for someone in the first few years of her career they are absolutely extraordinary,” says Cristina Amon, Dean, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.  “Like many of our young faculty members, she is already on her way to becoming a pioneer in her field. We are extremely proud of Joyce’s accomplishments and congratulate her on this richly deserved recognition.”