Kenneth’s Story

Kenneth's Story

The trails on UBC’s Okanagan campus weave past his daughter's daycare, through the woods, past a golf course, towards a little lake.

Dr. Kenneth Chau is walking. And as he walks, he is thinking about light.

Kenneth holds up his iPad to show his colleague, connected via Skype, the final presentation of his Engineering students' Capstone project: a solar-powered phone charging station for rural Ghana.

“Light always needs a curved lens to form an image, but what if you could image with a lens that is flat?” Kenneth says. “If such a flat lens existed, you could image over an unlimited area.”

It’s a revolutionary concept, but Kenneth is close to a breakthrough. And it’s on these walks alone with his own thoughts, or in his lab with his ambitious students, or over Skype with his colleagues all over the world, that Kenneth is exploring ideas that could change the world.

He is closing in on is a complete theory of flat lensing that will enable more sophisticated flat lens designs. “We are unlocking the secrets of flat lensing which should bring it closer to real-world application,” says Kenneth.

Kenneth is not rushing today, despite the speed at which his mind is racing.

A young pioneer in the field of electromagnetics and optics, Kenneth is deeply immersed in the world of technological innovation. From his labs have emerged breakthroughs like:

  • — a water quality sensor that connects with your iPhone,
  • — a handheld microscope that requires neither eyepieces or knobs,
  • — and a recent piece published in the international science magazine, Nature.

“It took me about three years to learn what I think this job is really about,” Kenneth says. “In the past, I would have felt a sense of hurriedness in getting the research done.”

Alongside the research, there are many demands in the world of academia — getting grant money, planning courses, conducting teaching — but Kenneth has learned how to balance this workload through a uniquely thoughtful approach.

“I need to ignore those impulses to rush, and instead take my time and let my true self naturally emerge in my work.”

Kenneth sketches out an idea from his theory of flat lensing.

Kenneth in his lab setting, at home in a place designed for playing with light.

Now Kenneth approaches his science like an art. When he writes summaries of his research he wants his writing to be “clear, concise and beautiful.” And though he works with cutting-edge technology, he is far from robotic in his work style.

As one of Kenneth's grad students prepares for his last day in the lab, Kenneth checks in to see where projects need to go next.

“When you create something you care about,” says Kenneth, “you pour your heart and soul into it. You make something singular and unique. It's like you've imprinted yourself on something and left it there for someone.”

For Kenneth, working with optics is not just about the light in the lens, it’s about the light in his students eyes.

“Our job is to advance knowledge,” Kenneth says. “But not to advance it for our own sake. We need to pull everyone up along with us. We are actually trying to make people come alive.”

“For us as professors, we have to inspire our students toward higher ideals, so they can bring these ideals with them later in life. That's what advances society as a whole: when people become open-minded, insightful, thoughtful. Not just through technological innovations, but through the attitudes they adopt.”

“This field is the bedrock of many aspects of modern society,” Kenneth says. “But anybody can learn about electromagnetics. There has to be something extra I bring.”

“I could tell a student exactly what to do to progress on their research problem, and it would take me about thirty minutes. Or, I could spend an hour debating with the student, asking questions, getting them to slowly come to their own realization of what they need to do.”

That slow realization is dawning like the Okanagan sun, rising to drench the brown hillsides with its copper warmth. Kenneth has watched Kelowna grow as a town over the years; has seen its population diversify. He moved here to raise his family. He’s loving it and is just now returning to work from a three-month paternity leave after the arrival of his second child.

Kenneth with his family, exploring a new country instead of exploring new theories.

“Having kids can be very clarifying,” he says. “You realize how short life is. You realize how deeply you want the world to be a better place for your kids. They are the next link in the chain.”

So as Kenneth gets back to the stack of books on his desk, back to the labs, and back to his long walks, he’s more prepared than ever to tackle some of society’s most exciting challenges in manipulating light, playing with electromagnetics, and changing students’ perspectives.

“In my heart of hearts, I believe I am creating value. Really, that's all there is to it.”

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