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Shaping the future: researcher profiles

See Leang Chin
World-leading laser specialist
When See Leang Chin observes a laser beam, he not only sees a way to measure air pollution, but also, in his wildest dreams, a way to make lightning strike wherever he wants!
  • Professor, Laval University, Department of Physics, Physical Engineering and Optics
  • Canada Research Chair in Ultrafast Intense Laser Science (Tier 1)
  • Honorary doctorate, University of Waterloo (June 11, 2021)
  • Fellow, Optical Society of America (since 1995)
  • Medal of merit for outstanding contributions to laser science, 6th International Symposium on Ultrafast Intense Laser Science, Pisa, Italy (September 23-27, 2007)
  • Honorary visiting professor, East China Normal University, Shanghai, China (since 2004)
  • Honorary professor/consultant, National Jiaotong University, Shanghai, China (since 2004)

These are only a few of the possibilities stemming from the work of this eminent Laval University professor, who was appointed Canada Research Chair in Ultrafast Intense Laser Science in January 2001.

Having spoken at conferences around the world, Dr. Chin is recognized as a leading researcher in the area of propagation and filamentation of ultrafast intense laser pulses in optical media. “So many applications have yet to be discovered. The only limit is the researcher’s imagination,” he says. “When I was a student, I would attend conferences and professors would ask me what I was researching. I told them I was interested in multi-photon ionization of atoms and molecules using intense lasers. They wished me good luck!”

Dr. Chin eventually completed his PhD and was hired by Laval University after the Department of Physics received a large National Research Council grant to create laser laboratories.

Visionary thinking

Dr. Chin quickly made his mark in Quebec City. In the 1980s, he helped bring the National Optics Institute (INO) ( to completion, promoting the project in presentations to senior Laval University officials and the National Research Council.

As proof of Dr. Chin’s leadership abilities, the INO currently employs 210 scientists, with staffing levels expected to double by 2011. It is also driving development in Quebec City’s booming optics and photonics sector.

The INO has also had a hand in the founding of a number of leading high-tech enterprises in and around Quebec City. A number of these enterprises are headed by Dr. Chin’s former students, including Germain Lamonde, president, CEO and co-founder of Exfo; Pierre Galarneau, INO’s vice-president of technology; and Denis Faubert, senior director of Hydro-Quebec’s research institute.

Influenced by Curie and Edison

Dr. Chin was born in Malaysia and developed an early interest in science. He was greatly influenced by the perseverance and imagination of his two role models, Marie Curie and Thomas Edison.

“I really admire their innovative spirit. It’s the cornerstone of my own philosophy. We mustn’t be afraid of imagining new things,” he says.

Dr. Chin immigrated to Canada in the mid-1960s and studied advanced physics at the University of Waterloo. He soon gained an enviable reputation in scientific circles after developing one of the first ruby lasers in Canada. Indeed, his startlingly original work has brought him great distinction.

A world-wide first

At Laval University in 1985, Dr. Chin became the first person in the world to observe the ionization of atoms and molecules by the tunnel effect in an experimental setting. This breakthrough paved the way for the ultrafast intense laser processes in use today. The lasers he develops are now being used to test air quality; their powerful beams can also be projected over very long distances or focused onto microscopic surfaces.

Dr. Chin also uses lasers to study the composition of matter; they are also used to improve fibre-optic communications and eliminate bacteria in meats and vegetables.

However, the most surprising theoretical application of lasers is their potential use as a lightning rod. “Instead of randomly striking someone nearby, lightning could be directed towards the river, out of harm’s way. We haven’t quite got that working yet, although Hydro-Quebec is conducting tests, as are colleagues in France, Germany and Japan. According to their reports, three-metre-long lightning discharges have been created in high-voltage labs. The hard part is creating a long-distance filament,” explains Dr. Chin, who is confident that the researchers will succeed despite the magnitude of the technological challenge facing them.

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