Tara Drake, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at The University of New Mexico, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award.

The award is NSF’s most prestigious award in recognition and support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Drake’s project, “Ultralow phase noise signal generation using Kerr-microresonator optical frequency combs,” explores one of the most important tools in precision measurement. Optical frequency combs are used in trace gas spectroscopy for the detection of chemical hazards and disease-correlated biomarkers, in stellar spectroscopy in the search for Earth-like exoplanets, and as critical components of optical atomic clocks. Although their use is now ubiquitous, optical frequency combs are largely confined to specialized optics laboratories with applications in a variety of scientific contexts from biology to astronomy. However, this is changing.

Drake NSF Career
Assistant Professor Tara Drake, right, reviews research data with students in her lab.

“Recently, optical frequency combs have been realized using chip-scale microring cavities and the nonlinear Kerr effect,” said Drake. “The promise of these “microcombs” lies in the possibility of replacing a research laboratory dedicated to precision measurement with a comb-on-a-chip platform that can perform precision measurements far from the optics lab.” However, as with many precision measurement instruments, microcomb precision is limited by material thermal noise, a limitation which is worsened by the small volume of the microring.

Building on recent work investigating how material noise affects comb precision, Drake and her team will develop a technique for microcomb noise reduction based on novel cavity geometries and comb operation. Decoupling material thermodynamics from the properties of the comb light represents an important and necessary milestone for the use of microcombs as state-of-the-art precision measurement instruments.

“While thermodynamics of matter are generally well understood, the intersection of thermal noise and nonlinear optics remains largely unexplored. In microcombs, the transduction of thermal fluctuations in the resonator material to noise on the comb light is highly dependent on the details of the comb state and can even differ between combs generated in the same resonator.”

As part of the award, Drake also plans to develop a summer academy for area STEM educators focused on design and construction of optics-based projects (Optical Technology Inventors and Makers Academy, OPTIMA). Attendees will learn the principles of optics and optical design and will be encouraged to create optics projects that can be used as teaching material in their classes. In the long term, Drake plans to expand this program to the wider Albuquerque community by partnering with organizations such as local area maker spaces and the Albuquerque Astronomical Society. The first OPTIMA is planned for summer 2026.

Drake joined UNM in the fall of 2019 as a faculty member in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. She is a part of UNM’s Center For High Technology Materials (CHTM) and the Optical Science and Engineering (OSE) program. In 2021, Drake received a Young Investigator Program award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). Drake is a UNM Women in STEM award winner and received the UNM Physics and Astronomy Excellence in Teaching Award for the 2021-2022 Academic Year. Before coming to UNM, Drake was an NRC postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Drake earned her Ph.D. in Physics in 2015 at the University of Colorado in the group of Deborah Jin.

For more information, visit the Drake Lab.