Faces of Research – Meet Robert Harris | Research – Research Horizons

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Robert Harris, Senior Research Engineer, Georgia Tech Research Institute
Meet Robert Harris, Senior Research Engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI)
What is your field  of  expertise and why did you choose it? 
My area of expertise is microelectronics and semiconductors. I work in the intersecting fields of materials science, computer aided circuit design, multi-physics modeling, simulation, and integrated circuit (IC) fabrication. I find there is tremendous room for growth and technological advancement.  
Growing up, I always wanted to know how everything works, and I was fascinated by computers and calculators. I wanted to understand circuits and the mysterious chips that made everything work. It turns out they are packed with transistors, which are simply little switches, connected in clever ways to make them useful. Circuit boards that had been very carefully designed were beautiful to me. I was always very interested in science, particularly physics because it shows me how everything is deeply connected.   
What makes Georgia Tech’s research institutes unique?          
Without a doubt, the people. We are truly a community working towards common goals of improvement of life for the good of all here at Georgia Tech. I’ve been privileged and humbled to work with bright, caring, and hard-working faculty, staff, and students here. The energy of Atlanta blends well with campus. When you combine excellent facilities, faculty, and Georgia Tech students, great things happen. 
The collaborative relationship between GTRI, where I work, and the academic arm of Georgia Tech enables us to do work from basic research all the way though the applied mission space. This integration between basic and applied research means that something entirely new can be created and put to use effectively.    
What impact is your  research  having on the world?  
I am helping my team at GTRI to increasingly complement electronics with photonics. We design photonic integrated circuits (PICs) and package them so that they can be transitioned out of the lab into the field. Our efforts in photonics increase the performance and capabilities of systems to contribute to our national security.  
I am also working on a project to create DNA digital memory. DNA is nature’s storage medium, and we can write and read data to, or, from the molecules in the same sense that magnetic tape, or optical drives have been used. Encoding digital information in DNA can help industry increase density and reduce power requirements for archival data storage; in theory a single droplet of DNA could replace thousands of hard drives. We are fabricating silicon chips to enable massively parallel synthesis of DNA, to scale up this technology to the point of commercial relevance. 
Through my recent work with COVID-19 disinfection techniques, we helped to make public spaces like airports safer while waiting to board flights through modeling and technology down-select. I am publishing our work to teach others how to build optimized ultraviolet (UV) disinfection chambers. We have helped to increase the use and interest in UV disinfection, which can help with future threats to public health. 
What do you like to do in your spare time when you are not working on your  research  or teaching? 
I most value spending time with family and friends. My other greatest joy is learning, which is why I love reading and traveling.  I like science writing, particularly books that explain the history of science and technology. I like to read everything by my favorite authors and understand how their thinking has changed over time. I am interested in creative thought and how to generate new ideas.
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