Sergio Carbajo

Q&A with Professor Sergio Carbajo

Sergio Carbajo is an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and affiliate professor at the Physics Departments, and is also a visiting professor at the Photon Science Division at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University. He is one of three new faculty members who have been recruited as part of the school’s Mentor Professor Program, a new initiative designed to hire faculty with a demonstrated record of, or who show exceptional promise for, mentorship of students from underrepresented and underserved populations. His research through the Quantum Light-Matter Cooperative (Q-LMC) focuses on novel ultrafast photon and particle sources, as well as their application in ultrafast phenomena for life and energy sciences. He is also interested in developing compact accelerators using a broad range of methodologies. Learn more about his work in our exclusive Q&A.

“Engaging students from all possible backgrounds and academic levels is paramount to the work that we do. It informs and affects how we ask scientifically, technologically, and societally relevant questions, and how we attempt to answer them to contribute to our knowledge base.”

Q: What are some of the research projects that you are focusing on for this year?
At the Quantum Light-Matter Cooperative (Q-LMC), our mission is to understand, design, and ultimately control light-driven processes to help solve interconnected socio-technological challenges. For example, we want to find out exactly how photosynthetic systems harness light from the sun and transform it into reusable energy. We are also interested in activating drugs or biological processes with light or reducing anthropogenic waste, such as examining decarbonization strategies that split carbon dioxide into added-value products.

Our strategy is inspired by Muybridge’s curiosity, and technically artful approach: we record stop-action movies of quantum, atomic, molecules in action. That is to say, we’re molecular filmmakers. Our films rely on two basic efforts. First, we build unique electron and photon sources across a wide range of characteristics sculpted to meet the demands processes we’d like to study, from medical and radiation therapies to quantum electrodynamics – you may think of us as photon and electron architects. And second, we build sophisticated cameras to record in real-time how these processes evolve from the smallest (quantum) level to the macroscale, which requires an incredible level of time and space resolution. This is because early, developmental dynamics at the quantum level wind up determining the functional properties of materials and physical processes.

Q: How do you work with undergraduate and graduate students in these research projects?
Engaging students from all possible backgrounds and academic levels is paramount to the work that we do. It informs and affects how we ask scientifically, technologically, and societally relevant questions, and how we attempt to answer them to contribute to our knowledge base. This is a heuristic exercise that all of us in the group, and especially students, engage in as an integral part of their research. The students gradually wind up leading research activities and objectives that enable them to take ownership of the successes (and failures – most of what we learn in science comes from what doesn’t work!). Their research projects are tightly intertwined, such that we collectively pull in the same overarching direction, catalyzing individual contributions, viewpoints, and expertise and building on others’ work. It’s truly a marvel to witness students’ progress over time and how they become experts in their field of study. And it’s a very special moment when you realize that they can put this expertise to use in the broader societal perspective. Because of this, our students’ work affects directly multiple stakeholders in academic research, the national laboratory complex, and photonics and associated industries around the world.

Q: How will your research be translated into new technologies?
In all honestly, we most often do not know – it wouldn’t be science otherwise! But we can make educated guesses, work consistently and critically, and let our discoveries lead us somewhere of value (what value system we use is perhaps a different conversation). Our foundational molecular filmmaking strategy enables us to concentrate on a vast array of applications in life sciences, biochemistry, quantum optics and information sciences, and environmental and chemical engineering. By asking questions at our knowledge frontier about how nature works in the smallest and fastest scales, our discoveries pave a direct development path when experiments show evidence that the answer to these questions is technologically feasible. This is precisely why the Q-LMC is comprised of scientists from diverse backgrounds and expertise. Homed at UCLA Samueli’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, the Q-LMC partners with other research institutions in the United States to expand our knowledge and technologies beyond our direct research interests.

Q: How could private funding through donor gifts enable you to further your research at UCLA?
Developing and carrying out research programs requires constant public and private financial investment. We are continually looking for research, internship, and funding opportunities closely aligned with our group’s interests from our communities and stakeholders. I am personally looking forward to having opportunities to engage with donors as this not only enriches our research endeavors but also indirectly supports UCLA and the wider scientific community. In my view, this is the type of private investment that can provide a transformative impact on society: it enables curiosity-driven sciences and paradigm-shifting technologies, and the traineeship of the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Q: What attracted you to the Mentor Professor Program at UCLA Samueli, and why do you think this kind of mentorship is important?
I am a first-generation college graduate and recently naturalized Hispanic/Latinx citizen who grew up in an unprivileged socioeconomic environment through my childhood and early adulthood. This experience intimately shapes my worldview, especially as a scientist and educator. I understand firsthand the profound and formative impact higher education has on students who—primarily due to systemic and not behavioral reasons—are removed from academic and professional opportunities and lack the educated networks that are so instrumental in helping them advance in their personal and professional lives. I have also come to apprehend the power of narratives that erase space for people to live full and happy lives, revealing interconnections within systems of inequality.

As a result, I have just recently felt to have no option but to help build a coalition that questions and informs how the exercise of scientific inquiry may advance equity and social justice. I fundamentally believe that UCLA – as a public, higher education, top-notch research, and impending minority-serving institution – does not only offer the platform to achieve these aspirations but also to serve as a role model for the academic complex nationally.