It was the study of light — photonics, that led Juan Villegas to NYU Abu Dhabi. With keen interest in the field, Villegas was on the lookout for an institution that would fit his criteria for a PhD program.

“With photonic research just starting off at NYUAD, I knew it was the perfect place for me to have certain freedom to explore the different faces of photonic research,” said Villegas, an Electrical and Computer Engineering PhD student.

At NYUAD, Villegas worked with fellow researchers to build tiny optical systems that fit on microchips. The team designs the microchips to fit hundreds to thousands of optical components capable of complex optical processes at a lower cost.

Villegas uses mathematical models to create designs with very high performance capability. With the photonic elements that he designed, Villegas hopes they can one day be used in secure data communications.

A believer in community engagement, Villegas stepped up to be part of the graduate student council to keep the graduate student body active through resources and activities. At the start of the pandemic, Villegas with a few colleagues were the founding members of Early Engineering Research Forum (EERF) on campus. The platform was born out of the desire to help researchers reconnect and support each other in their academic activities during this period.

Villegas’s research and involvement within the NYUAD community won him this year’s Graduate Student Leadership Award. It’s a reflective moment for the graduating Colombian. “In a way, it makes me want to do better and stay committed, not only to NYUAD and its graduates, but to any new community I join in the future.”