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Shaping the future: researcher profiles

Dr.Sophie LaRochelle :
photonics pioneer
Dr. Sophie LaRochelle, associated with the Centre for Optics, Photonics and Lasers (COPL) in Quebec City, is one of Canada’s leading photonics communications specialists. She has taken on a pioneering role in this high-tech sector, which despite phenomenal growth over the past 10 years continues to attract very few women.
  • 1987: Bachelor’s in physical engineering, Laval University
  • 1989:Master’s in physics, Laval University
  • 1992:Doctorate, Optical Sciences Center, University of Arizona
  • 1992-1996: Scientist, DRDC-Valcartier
  • 1996-present: Professor,Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Laval University, and researcher, Centre for Optics, Photonics and Lasers (COPL) » Author of more than 170 articles for prestigious scientific journals and international conferences

“Photonics is a future-oriented field that’s expected to grow significantly as the Internet’s reach continues to expand. We are embracing innovation as we identify new ways to transmit information even more quickly,” says Dr. LaRochelle, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Communications and Optical Fibre Components and a professor in Laval University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 1996.

Since it was founded, COPL has housed a number of photonics centres where researchers like Dr. LaRochelle are developing more powerful and more efficient high-speed communications systems amid increased demand and changing needs.

Quebec City has thus positioned itself at the forefront of the optical fibre field, attracting luminaries such as Dr. LaRochelle and a dynamic research team.

Although she completed her PhD at the University of Arizona’s Optical Sciences Center, she resisted the temptations of life in the US and returned to her roots in Quebec.Her move was influenced by Laval University’s decision to make photonics research a key part of its long-term development strategy. “It’s very exciting,” she says as she describes the emergence of advanced photonics systems that are needed to meet intense demand.

Cutting-edge projects

Dr. LaRochelle and her team have received international acclaim in the area of Bragg networks (coloured optical filters). As key optical fibre components, Bragg networks may hold the answers to a number of questions being tackled by researchers seeking to improve highspeed networks. “A few years ago, people mainly transmitted photos [on the Web], but today they’re also sending video messages. In other words, the quantity of data transmitted using optical fibre networks has doubled,” she notes. “We have to develop major communications corridors, in addition to building higher-performance access networks.”

More specifically, Dr. LaRochelle’s team is devising new design, writing and characterization methods for Bragg networks. Since related components are already available on the market, private-sector partnership opportunities are numerous.

Dr. LaRochelle’s team has also received various patents, including one to create a multifrequency laser that was developed and operated at TeraXion, a local company recognized as a photonics leader. Another patent involves a tunable chromatic dispersion compensator, used to correct signal distortions and improve signal transmission quality.

Important research

Considered one of world’s leading photonics experts despite only being in her early 40s, Dr. LaRochelle stands at the centre of a large-scale network working closely with other universities in Quebec and across Canada. “We maintain an active presence and we’re well known internationally,” she says. She is regularly invited to present her research findings and speak at international conferences held at universities and research centres around the world.

Moreover, people from a variety of countries come to Laval University to study photonics, with jobs awaiting most graduates in the field. “We’re training a key part of the labour force,” says Dr. LaRochelle, who expresses surprise at the apparent lack of interest among Canadians, particularly women, in this booming sector.

“Photonics is a constantly changing field, so it’s ideal for creative and dynamic individuals who enjoy meeting people from around the world. It’s exciting!” says Dr. LaRochelle, adding that the stereotype of the solitary research “nerd” shut away in some laboratory no longer applies. “There’s lots of teamwork and you don’t even need to be the best student in the class. You just have to enjoy what you’re doing and stick with it.”

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