Department of Physics

The Physics of Atoms, Molecules, and Optics


We study interactions between light and matter. Our research is diverse, ranging from fundamental quantum mechanics through to high-power lasers for material processing. Light’s propensity to interact with matter creates strong ties with sensing research throughout the department, yet our team has a distinct focus on the properties of light itself. We have an active experimental and theoretical research programme, which results in high-quality graduates with excellent prospects for employment.

We’ve also played a major role in the establishment of and research within The Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonics and Quantum Technologies, a Centre of Research Excellence based in Otago.

Various groups explore different aspects of the research area. Neil Broderick, Stéphane Coen, Miro Erkintalo, John Harvey, Rainer Leonhardt, and Stuart Murdoch make up the photonics group. They research nonlinear fibre optics, micro-resonator frequency combs, passive fibre cavities, soliton phenomena, swept laser sources, mode-locked fibre lasers, and terahertz spectroscopy.

A theoretical quantum optics group includes Howard Carmichael, Matthew Collett, and Scott Parkins. They specialise in quantum optics and information processing, many-body quantum systems, cavity quantum electrodynamics, open quantum systems, quantum trajectories, cavity quantum electrodynamics, and non-classical light. Maarten Hoogerland leads a cold matter team that explores ultra-cold atoms, Bose-Einstein condensation, atom optics, tapered fibre optics, and quantum optics.

Cather Simpson is researching how molecules direct the energy acquired in light absorption and “choose” among potential paths such as electron transfer, mechanical motion, bond breaking and forming, fluorescence, and vibrational energy dissipation. Her interest in light-matter interactions has also led to major targeted research to exploit ultrashort laser pulses for machining. She leads a multi-institutional team to overcome the associated challenges through tailored laser-matter interactions, materials synthesis, and laser development.

Frédérique Vanholsbeeck works in biomedical imaging. She has been developing an all-fibre, real time spectroscopic optical probe (“optrode”) as well as systems for optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging. She has turned the optrode into a very versatile tool and applied it to the measurement of heart action potential in vivo, to bioremediation monitoring and to water safety testing. OCT is an interferometric technique that allows for in vivo imaging of biological tissues, giving a resolution of less than 10 microns. As well as developing state-of-the-art imaging capabilities, she has continued to improve the technique itself, in particular by developing original signal processing methods. These advances have led her to use OCT to identify tissues with different characteristics, adding a layer of functional information to the structural images provided by OCT.

Research stories

  • When Good Waves Go Bad: Oceanography and Fibre-optics
    20 April 2016
    Professor Neil Broderick is studying massive, rogue oceanic waves to better understand why light waves also unexpectedly flash in optical systems. His research aims to save ships and also safeguard your fibre-optic devices from frying!
  • Slow Light: Pulling the Reins on Optical Pulses
    20 April 2016
    Associate Professors Stephane Coen, Stuart Murdoch, and Dr Miro Erkintalo have recently managed to slow a pulse of light by promoting its interaction with another. Although minuscule in scale, this revolutionary effect has enormous potential for data storage and transmission.
  • Trapping Light: New Frontiers in Photonics
    19 April 2016
    Associate Professor Scott Parkins is working with micro-resonators, which permanently contain light by reflecting it back inwards from their edges. Their potential applications are numerous, including terabit communications (advanced data transfer that’s propelling the Ethernet to unprecedented speeds).