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Alumni Stories: Aris Silzars

Aris Silzars

While attending Reed College as a physics major, Aris Silzars knew he wanted to continue with his education and obtain an advanced degree. Born in Riga, Latvia, but raised in Portland, Ore., Silzars had chosen Reed because it was close to home. By chance, he happened to meet Professor B. Gale Dick, who taught physics at the University of Utah. Dr. Dick was visiting Reed (his alma mater) to encourage students to apply to the U for graduate school. Silzars applied to the U, along with other schools, but found the university gave him the best opportunity by providing a teaching assistant position that allowed for modest financial support. “The late Dr. Dick was influential for me,” said Silzars. “He was simply a great teacher. His lectures were clear and presented with care and enthusiasm. He met my every expectation and was instrumental in getting me to come to the U. He kept me inspired with his teaching.”

Silzars obtained a master’s in physics—his research was on laser light interacting with sunlight—and his advisor was the late Dr. Grant Fowles. He went on to complete a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the U.

Following graduation in 1969, he joined Watkins-Johnson Company in Palo Alto to work on microwave and electron optical devices, primarily for government contracts. In 1974, he moved back to the greater Portland area and joined Tektronix Inc. in Beaverton. At the time, Tektronix was the preeminent company in oscilloscopes, which were used widely in engineering and research laboratories. He was able to contribute his knowledge of microwave circuitry to the design of their products. As his career progressed, he took on more engineering management responsibility, leading groups of more than 900 people in engineering and manufacturing state-the-art electronic components.

Display technology and consulting

After 13 years, he was ready for a change and thought about a doing a startup but learned that modest low-risk proposals didn’t interest venture fund firms—they only wanted to fund the next billion-dollar opportunity. He became president of a DuPont-funded startup in Wilmington, Del. The technology was interesting but after several years it was apparent it wasn’t possible to produce the technology at a price customers would be willing to pay.  

Silzars has always been interested in display technology, which is used in cell phones, laptop and desktop computers, televisions, and other display technology applications. In 1994, he became director of display research at the Sarnoff Labs in Princeton, N.J. Sarnoff Corporation was the original RCA laboratory where color television and later liquid crystal displays were invented. “It was always interesting to wander the hallways and think about the well-known researchers who had worked there in past years,” he said. Working at Sarnoff proved challenging because external contracts had to be found to support the research and the high overhead. In discussions with companies, Silzars realized they would be happy to hire him as an independent consultant to avoid the overhead. “At the time, my wife and I were trying to decide where we might like to settle on a more permanent basis,” he said. The attraction of the Pacific Northwest, with a daughter working in the Seattle area, made the decision easier. In 1995, they moved to the Seattle metro area, where he became a consultant.  

Career as expert witness and his own lab  

One day he received an unexpected call from a major law firm asking if he could help on a patent case. Silzars had no idea this call would change his life and lead to a career as an expert witness on patent litigation cases. “I had never even heard of such a career, and it was one that came to me out of the blue—not one that I actively sought,” he said. His business grew as word spread that he was knowledgeable, thorough, and a good presenter at depositions and trials.

Since 1995, Silzars has been the founder and president of Northlight Displays, based in Sammamish, Wash. He has his own laboratory to provide testing and analysis of anything related to display technology. Most of his work is done for clients who hold patents or are defending patents. He continues to be active in the Society for Information Display, serving as president in 2000-2002 and general chair of the International Symposium in 2004.

Value of a physics degree

Silzars says studying physics has made a huge difference in his life. “In order to do expert witness work, you need a Ph.D. because you’re going up against faculty members from well-known institutions, who of course have their Ph.D.,” he said. “Physics has made my career possible in so many ways. Without the degree from the U, my career opportunities would have been much more limited—I wouldn’t have had all these interesting opportunities.”   

In looking back, he is reminded that life’s journey has many twists and turns and times of uncertainty. “My advice is to look deep within yourself to find what really motivates you—your  interests and enthusiasms—because that’s the key to helping you find and respond to something you may never have imagined or envisioned,” he said.

The pandemic has had little effect on his daily routines or business since all his work is done in his office and lab, and his client interactions are now done by computer. A few years ago he was traveling well over 100,000 miles a year, but over time that has dropped to nearly zero. “The pandemic has caused us to move technical conferences online. The personal meetings are still going to happen but more will be done remotely—this is a trend that won’t go away when the pandemic comes to an end,” he said.

In his free time, Silzars indulges his love of music, photography, and painting. He has a corner of his lab set up with large speakers and an easel for doing oil painting. He runs at least five miles every other day and enjoys the outdoors.

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Last Updated: 9/29/20