Ajay Nahata – Believing In The Power Of An Idea

Ajay Nahata

Ajay Nahata was born in Vadodara, Gujarat, India, and moved to the United States with his family when he was five years old. He spent his entire childhood through high school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Growing up he had a broad range of interests but was particularly involved in tennis, chess and math.

Ajay graduated from MIT with a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, although he spent a large part of his freshman year exploring a variety of different majors including mathematics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science.

He then obtained his Master’s degree from Columbia University in electrical engineering, with a focus on optics and semiconductor physics. Between his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees, Ajay Nahata spent five years working at AlliedSignal Inc. investigating the nonlinear optical properties of organic materials, particularly poled polymers, and their application to devices for high-speed optical communications.

In 2003, Ajay Nahata joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Utah as an Associate Professor. After being promoted to the rank of Professor, Ajay was appointed the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering.

In that role, he not only led the accreditation effort for the college but also its recruiting and outreach effort, as well as its effort to teach both oral and written communications to all undergraduate students.

He was also the principal investigator and Director of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) that supported the research efforts of approximately twenty faculty and fifty graduate students and post-doctoral fellows over seven years. 

As a professor, Ajay’s primary research effort was in the area of plasmonics and metamaterials, with the goal of developing devices for high-speed communications. During his time in Utah, he mentored a total of eight Ph.D. students, four post-doctoral fellows, and nearly two dozen graduate, undergraduate, and high school students. 

Since 2019, Ajay Nahata has transitioned back to the industry and led efforts in creating and making commercially available high-precision, high-sensitivity diode laser-based optical spectrometers and physics-based algorithms that make sense of the measured data.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?

I have always believed that the key to success and productivity is focus and hard work. There really are no shortcuts and I have never shied away from hard work.

What is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

When I believe in an idea, I rarely ever give up.

The best example of this is an idea I came up with shortly after the first year of my Ph.D. I wrote to my advisor about it and he said that he thought of something similar years ago, but it didn’t work. Nevertheless, he said I should pursue it if I believed in it.

The basic idea was to use nonlinear optical crystals to generate and coherently detect broadband terahertz (THz) radiation. In principle, if it worked, it would be superior to any other technique that existed at the time.

The basic setup was easy and took a few hours to complete. It was a spectacular dud in which I saw absolutely nothing.

I took the system apart and tried setting it up in a slightly different manner. I did this every day for several months with no sign that anything was working, but I let the belief that it would work.

One day, it just worked. Every day after that it just worked. I have no idea what I did that was different. Nevertheless, that basic technique is now used in the majority of THz labs around the world and a follow-on paper that I wrote is my most highly cited publication.

The simple lesson that I learned and often repeat is that if you believe that you are right, don’t give up.

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