Martijn Heck

Professor of Photonic Integration, TU/e
Scientific Director of the Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute

Martijn Heck has been professor in the Photonic Integration group of the Electrical Engineering department at Eindhoven University of Technology since 2020. He is also still a part-time group leader at Aarhus University in Denmark, where he founded the Photonic Integrated Circuits group in 2013. Martijn is a globally recognized and internationally oriented expert in photonic integration, with broad experience in ground-breaking basic research, applied research and technology transfer. He has specific interest in the application of this technology in sensors, microwave and terahertz photonics, quantum technology, and interconnects.

Since September 2021, Martijn has been heading the then newly founded Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute, which he helped establish. The institute will, in an interdisciplinary approach, smartly ‘entangle’ two major technology fields: the superfast light-driven communication technology of photonics and the mind-blowing calculation magic of quantum technology. Its main objective is to investigate and develop materials, technologies, and systems for tomorrow’s information society.

Photo: Angeline Swinkels

3 questions to Martijn Heck

What do you appreciate most about working at your university and/or your department?

In my career, I have worked at universities in three countries, and both at classical and technical universities. I think it is fair to say that I have seen quite some different environments. What I appreciate most about my university can be summarized in one short statement: TU/e understands engineering. For me, engineering – or more specific the engineering sciences – is all about finding the right balance between novelty and fundamental and foundational work on the one hand side, and making an impact in the real world on the other hand side. That may sounds more trivial than it actually is. Some universities give a strong push towards the “Nature and Science” high-impact kind of research. Obviously, if I can publish in those journals, I would (and have done so), but my point is that I would not like to tailor my research towards such journals, just for the sake of being published there. It’s not a goal in itself, in my opinion, and that is being recognized by our department. That being said, merely doing incremental research is also not what we should do at the universities, and I am very happy that we do keep investing in and enabling excellent research activities, through world-class infrastructure. Our cleanroom, for example, is state of the art for III-V based semiconductor research, and essential for my research.

I think the environment around the university also plays a large role here. This gives the university the luxury to actually make such choices. The Eindhoven Brainport area is a globally leading technology ecosystem, uniquely positioned in photonics and semiconductors, both very relevant to my research. The industry around our university understands the need for foundational engineering research and education. This is very motivating, as it provides high-quality and interesting jobs for our students, and it provides stimulating and fruitful collaborations for our research.

As a final point it has to be mentioned that in my opinion TU/e is a very open university, where it is as easy to talk to a Dean as it is to talk to a first-year-student. A university should also be a community and TU/e definitely qualifies as such.

In hindsight, what was/were the decisive factor(s) that got you where you are today?

Coincidence… luck… serendipity…

I always had a broad interest, and I have mostly been developing myself on a wide range of topics and skills. This included a broad study like applied physics, and a lot of extracurricular activities. My philosophy has always been to open as many doors as possible. My choice for an academic career, however, came by chance. I opted for a PhD, because I actually graduated during the internet and communication collapse of the early 2000s, and my main interest was in photonics, which, by the time, had a main application in optical communication. My choice for a postdoc in the USA was motivated by another crisis, the financial crisis of 2008, and the ensuing lack of industry opportunities. Even during my first postdoc years I was not particularly preparing myself for an academic career.

However, very positive experiences as a postdoc changed my mind, most notably the freedom in research, and I decided to go for an academic position. Getting a position is always a little bit of luck. Not so much with respect to cv and research plans, as that just needs to be good, and you can work on that (many candidates are good, however), but mostly with respect to getting that final click, that seamless fit with your new department. Although I successfully set up a group as a junior faculty member, there comes a time to reflect on whether you are in the right place to consolidate your research and whether you see a clear future. This was the moment for me to transfer to TU/e, now as a full professor, as it offered me far more opportunities to step up my research, in terms of infrastructure, colleagues, environment and aligned strategy.

What project or endeavour are you looking forward to?

After a year at TU/e, I became the Scientific Director of a new institute, the Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute. The goal is to contribute with excellent research to the further progress of exponential technologies for the information society, most notably communications, computing and ubiquitous sensing. We have a specific focus on photonics and quantum technology, the former an established strength of TU/e and the latter an emerging strength. The strategy is to create synergy between those two fields.

On a personal level I’m really interested to see whether we will be able to create a unique position for TU/e here, in the field of quantum photonics or photonics for quantum technology. Although our current strengths are not necessarily unique by themselves, their combination can lead to a very interesting positioning, significantly adding to the current landscape. I’m really looking forward to seeing whether we can make this happen. It is an interesting new step for me, as normally, as an academic, your main responsibility is your own research, including the work of the students and researchers working for you, and directly get the credits for that, e.g., through publications. As a Scientific Director, the goal is more to motivate, enable and facilitate others to do the work, which is an interesting change of perspective. We have a good team now, so things look good for the future.

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