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A look at engineering’s version of The Breakfast Club … with lasers

Alan Willner embraces the cultural and religious differences among the 14 doctoral students in his USC photonics lab

Alan Willner and students
Alan Willner's photonics lab employs graduate students from six different countries. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Viterbi)

There is a word in Hebrew, kehillah, which defined loosely, means a community. It’s a word that Alan Willner, an Orthodox Jew and leading engineer in the field of photonics at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, takes very seriously.

During a chat with Willner about the work he’s doing at the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, it became clear that he only wanted to talk about the community he is a part of at USC. In other words, there would be no talk of data-carrying electromagnetic beams.

In 1990, when Willner first walked in the door for a USC interview with then-chair Jerry Mendel, he was, as always, wearing a yarmulke. Mendel immediately noticed and rushed to change the post-interview dinner reservation to a Kosher restaurant.

“Of all the places I interviewed with, USC was the only place that accommodated my religious observance so sensitively and proactively,” Willner said.

A few months later, while walking along Venice Beach on a lovely January day with his fiancé, Willner decided to join USC Viterbi.

“From day minus one, I felt I was joining a real community, not just a workplace,” he said, referring to the day he was hired as an assistant professor.

Lesson learned

Willner now holds the Steven and Kathryn Sample Chair honoring the late USC president. The Optical Communications Laboratory features 2,500 square feet of space. There, Willner and his 14 doctoral students use state-of-the-art technology to conduct high-speed experiments on optical systems and devices.

His current students hail from six countries: China, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Throw in former students from Germany, India, Israel, Korea, Taiwan and Turkey and suddenly that 2,500 square-foot lab doesn’t seem quite large enough to contain the grievances their nations could claim against each other.

One important lesson I learned over the past 25 years is that USC does not just tolerate diversity, we celebrate it.

Alan Willner

“One important lesson I learned over the past 25 years is that USC does not just tolerate diversity, we celebrate it,” Willner said. “Just as my differences were embraced by the larger USC community when I first began here, I try to live by that standard with my students today.”

Willner and his students rarely talk politics, but they do discuss religion and culture — a lot. As the first identifiable Jew many of them have ever met, Willner encourages his students to ask him anything about his religion.

“My Chinese students tend to ask about Kosher food — what it is and what it means,” Willner said, as a large unopened jar of gefilte fish sat on his desk. “I once had a Muslim student ask me if Jews believe in the devil. We don’t, and as it happens neither do Muslims. We ended up having a wonderful discussion about it in my office.”

“Before I joined the group, I knew almost nothing about Islam or Judaism,” said fifth-year PhD student Yongxiong Ren. “But I soon learned that they each follow lunar calendars, just like we Chinese do, with similarly deep meanings. This really strengthened the idea in my mind about respecting people with different backgrounds.”

A unique environment

Nisar Ahmed, one of Willner’s recent graduates from Pakistan, recounts what it was like to be in the lab.

“Professor Willner’s lab had students from all over the world, including one student from Israel, which was particularly interesting to me because I had never met anyone from that country,” he said. “The two of us became close and while working together I was able to correlate many common beliefs between our faiths. He even invited my family to his home for Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner, an experience I may otherwise never have had.”

Willner’s new students are exposed to this environment the moment they first step into his lab.

“When I joined, I was extremely nervous because I’d never had experience working with international students,” said Ahmad Fallahpour, a first-year PhD student from Iran. “When I arrived, I found people from different nationalities, cultures, religions and educational backgrounds working together. Now I have mentors from China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. I enjoy working with them because I get to learn about their cultures.”

Everyone in the group is acutely aware of their differences, but it is always approached in good humor. Willner recalled an episode when two students, a religious Muslim and a religious Jew (two good friends, both with long beards), were sitting next to each other in a research meeting.

The Muslim student reported that his experiment was working, and the Jewish student reported that his was not. Willner turned to the Jewish student and said, “Look, he prays five times a day and you only pray three times a day. Of course his experiment is going to work before yours.”

The entire group broke out in laughter.

So, to summarize: Alan Willner runs a lab full of students thrown together from a list of countries that collectively mistrust each other at best, and downright hate each other at worst. It’s like some sort of nerdy, engineering version of The Breakfast Club … with lasers.

The reality is that the lab actually thrives on this diversity.

“I try to take all the cultural aspects from my group and see how we can make them work together,” Willner said. “What we end up with is a collection of best practices from all over the world that allows us to work really smartly and efficiently.”

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A look at engineering’s version of The Breakfast Club … with lasers

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