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5 Questions for a Scientist: Inventor and Engineer Eric Fossum

Dec 22, 2016   |   AAAS

The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves.

Get to know Dr. Eric Fossum

Eric Fossum

Occupation: Professor
Institution: Dartmouth College
Field: Engineering and physics
Focus: Microelectronics and solid-state image sensor devices

Dr. Eric Fossum is the engineer and physicist responsible for inventing the image sensor technology (the complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor sensor) used in billions of smartphones and cameras. The holder of more than 210 patents worldwide, Dr. Fossum works at Dartmouth College, where he is a professor in the Thayer School of Engineering, teaching and working to develop the next generation of camera image sensors (the Quanta Image Sensor). He is also the director of the PhD Innovation Program and the incoming associate provost for the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer. Earlier in his career, he worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, co-founded the Photobit Corporation, and spent five years consulting with Samsung Electronics.

A 2016–2017 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador, Dr. Fossum has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Technology and Innovation, the journal of the National Academy of Inventors. He and his wife operate a hobby farm in New Hampshire. To learn more about Dr. Fossum or ask him questions, you can connect with him at Linkedin, via email, or through his website.

1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).
I am a professor so part of my time is spent teaching college students and PhD students about microelectronics and the business of starting technology companies. I also work with my PhD students on research to develop next-generation camera chips that are sensitive to single photons and that might also have a billion pixels on a single image sensor chip.

2. When did you first become interested in your field?
When I was a PhD student, I was a summer intern at a large aerospace company and I worked on camera systems. That really sparked my interest in image sensor chips since I was already studying microelectronics, physics, and engineering.

3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
I really enjoy inventing new ways for other scientists and people in general to take pictures with advanced instruments and also with smartphones. Actually, I love watching people use my invention to take pictures since taking and sharing pictures seems to make people happy.

4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
I usually work on my computer in the early morning, and then I go to my office at the university. I have to get ready to teach my class and think about the material I am going to present. In the afternoon, I often meet with students to discuss what they are working on. Sometimes I meet with other professors and share information with them. I do spend a lot of time on my computer for doing math, writing things, and communicating with other people. On the weekends though, I like to work on my farm and drive my tractor. You can’t spend your whole life on a computer!

5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science today?
Besides reading, watching, and listening, ask “why?” a lot. First try to figure out the answer yourself, but then ask “why?” to see if you were right or if there is another explanation. Asking questions and learning how to answer your own questions is one of the keys to being a good scientist.

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