Lasers and Stuff: A Day in the Life of Dr. David Hilton

Author:  Hriday Bhambhvani

Institution:  University of Alabama at Birmingham

From upstate New York, to New Mexico, Texas, and finally Alabama, Dr. David Hilton has been around the block to say the least. Hilton completed his doctoral studies in applied physics at Cornell University under the guidance of Dr. Chung Tang and is now an associate professor of physics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Unlike many Ph.D. level researchers, Hilton is actively involved in undergraduate education. He is the sole lecturer for the honors general physics classes at UAB – a class lauded by many a student – and has spearheaded the movement for honors education in introductory physics courses.  

Aside from teaching budding scientists of an eclectic variety, Dr. Hilton runs his own research lab. To summarize Hilton’s research interests, he explains that his lab’s work focuses on “[the] electronic properties of materials.” More specifically, Hilton uses a wide array of analytical techniques to answer the questions of “What is it about the chemical structure of materials that makes something a conductor? An insulator?”

Hilton’s research group primarily uses lasers to examine the fundamental electronic properties of these materials. The application of this research lies in the development of materials with properties not found naturally. For instance, construction of low energy optical switches is heavily contingent upon the ability of the material to have a dynamic transparency; insulators are typically transparent, while metals are not. This line of inquiry would eventually lend itself to the construction of a terahertz processor.  

“What’s becoming more interesting to us is the way that we can use lasers to manipulate the electronic properties of certain materials. For instance, say a material is an insulator, but if we can photoexcite it the right way, we can actually trigger this insulator to metal phase transition. We can drive it into a non-equilibrium state that has new properties we may want to use.”

Though Dr. Hilton’s office is filled with old physics texts, manuscripts, and the occasional xkcd comic, it wasn’t always this way. He is originally an engineer by training, having completed both his undergraduate and masters degrees in optics in the school of engineering at the University of Rochester.

“Certainly, by the end of my senior year, I was applying to graduate programs. Because I was limited in optics graduate programs, where the only other optics program was at the time, I either needed to stay put or switch to a slightly different field; I decided on the former and stayed put for my masters, thinking I was going to stay for my PhD.”

Eventually, however, Dr. Hilton zoomed ever-so-slightly out of the narrow focus that was optics and decided to enter Cornell University’s Department of Applied and Engineering Physics for his PhD. Like most graduate programs in the sciences, there was not typically a specific focus within the field of study. Rather, as Hilton explains, your focus arises from your research.

“At the PhD level, your specialization is the person you work for. For me, that was Chung Tang. His work was on semiconductor physics, but his tool of investigation was laser spectroscopy… so it was physics with lasers and optics – a really great crossroads for me between both what I had done at Rochester and what I wanted to continue to do.”

Following graduate school, Dr. Hilton pursued a three-year-long post-doctoral fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratories under Dr. Antoinette Taylor where he continued his research in semiconductor physics while using terahertz spectroscopy. Hilton’s tenure at Los Alamos was impressively prolific, as he actively published his work in a slew of prestigious journals – Physical Review Letters, Optics Letters, and Applied Physics Letters. And finally, after a brief secondary post-doctoral appointment at Rice University, Hilton accepted a position as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Alabama of Birmingham. He is now a tenured associate professor at the same university where he will –his students hope – remain for the duration of his career.

Teaching and serving in a mentorial capacity are roles that are almost always inextricably linked to the job description of a scientist, particularly a professor at an academic institute. For Dr. Hilton, this has been an unexpectedly educational experience and a pleasant surprise.  

“I enjoy teaching, more than I thought I would. Getting the material out of your mouth in a vaguely coherent way is more of a challenge than I thought it would be. You know, when you get done with a degree, you think you understand physics; then you try and teach it to someone else, and you understand it in a way you hadn’t before.”

Dr. Hilton thoroughly enjoys his day-to-day activities as a professor. However, interestingly enough, many of Hilton’s fellow PhD students broke out of the well-established mold of pursuing an academic career after graduate school. In fact, many of them attended law school after completing their PhD’s and went on to work in patent law.  Some even entered investment banking with a variety of multinational firms: Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, and Barclays Capital, among others.

“Certainly, if you get a physics degree, you don’t have to become me, and there’s plenty of other things you can do with a PhD.”

Dr. David Hilton has had an illustrious career, having had experience with nearly all facets of the life of an academic. When asked about advice for undergraduates looking to pursue a career in academia, Hilton’s two cents are applicable to more than the esoteric physics major looking to discover the next Higgs Boson (i.e., listen up!):

“I think staying at one place for any substantial length of time early in your career is a mistake. You know, you benefit from the exposure, the new people; you benefit from going other places, seeing new things… Also, you’re going to get to grad school, and there will be a lot of really, really smart people in the room. Take advantage of this. Having the right people around you to mentor you, to coach you, and occasionally give you a kick in the you-know-what is critical.”