A researcher of photonics, Bhavin Shastri aims to redesign computing as we know it

Posted on September 29, 2022

When Bhavin Shastri arrived at Queen’s, he knew he’d found his home. “This is the end game,” he says. “Kingston and Queen’s is home.”

By no means is retirement on the horizon. For Shastri, there’s too much work to do. “We know that lasers and fibre optics revolutionized how we communicate,” he says. “The next frontier is: how do we do computing with light?”

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy, Shastri researches photonics, the study of light, photons and how photons interact with matter. Specifically, he is part of a worldwide network of researchers working to develop computing that is powered by photons, which in a way means they are entirely recreating computing as we understand it.

“In electronics, you have a switch, a transistor, that switches on and off, with ones and zeros,” he says. “It’s very hard to make a transistor, a switch, with a laser because photons don’t interact with one another. They’re not like electrons. This is a fundamental property of light. All in all, it’s one of the biggest challenges in optics, in photonics right now.”

“What we discovered a decade ago is that lasers, for example, behave like biological neurons. At that time, the field was like, ‘Ah! We were trying to make a digital optical computer, but we no longer need to do that. We need to make an optical computer that mimics the brain.’ And that’s essentially what we’re trying to do, make an optical computer that will mimic the brain.”

According to Shastri, dozens of research groups are working on this across North America and Europe. “What we’re doing is photonics for artificial intelligence,” he says. “There are others who are doing artificial intelligence for photonics. One field informs the other. It is a worldwide effort.”

He arrived at Queen’s after seven years of post-doctoral work at Princeton University. A Canadian who earned his engineering degrees at McGill, Shastri knew he wanted to return to Canada. He patiently waited for the best academic opportunity to present itself that matched both his professional research and personal and geographic interests. He found both in Kingston and Queen’s.

“What attracted me to Queen’s was the very strong engineering physics undergraduate program, the strong research facilities, the core faculty here at the Nanophotonics Research Centre, and the collaborations with electrical engineering,” he says. “For example, I work closely with Professor Alexander Tait, who was hired here a year ago, and we’ve known each other for over 10 years. We worked together at Princeton.”

“We have one of the best, if not the best, engineering physics undergraduate programs in the country. We have the strongest students in Engineering Physics. You need extremely strong students to move the research forward, to move the needle, to move the science forward.”

"[Professor Emeritus] Art McDonald, Nobel Laureate, coincidentally met my wife, Ishana Gopaul, at Pearson airport and he told her how Kingston is a wonderful place to raise a family. She was enthusiastic about his endorsement, and our Queen’s journey started.”