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Schools ride photonics growth

For decades, universities across Rochester have provided students with curricula that support the optics and photonics fields.

The publicity surrounding the national American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics in Rochester last year, however, has helped area schools expand their reach in both areas, local officials said.

Monroe Community College is the only such college in the country to offer associate’s degrees in optics.

“Everywhere I was working, I constantly heard that the struggle we have in Rochester is for skilled optics technicians,” said Alexis Vogt, endowed chair and associate professor of MCC’s optical systems technology program. “I’ve since learned that that extends far beyond the reach of just Rochester. This is not only a nationwide problem but in fact it’s a worldwide problem.”

Since the AIM announcement, enrollment in the school’s optical systems technology program has increased by 63 percent.

“People interested in optics—the word is out,” Vogt said. “The message I’m always trying to get out is we have high-paying jobs that are available today. These jobs were available before the photonics announcement was made, but the publicity that followed with the photonics announcement has been a wonderful driver in bringing people’s attention to what we’re doing.”

In the fall 2015 the program had 44 students and grew to 72 students a year later.

MCC’s focus on optics and photonics was supported by Eastman Kodak Co. as the firm would send employees to be trained at MCC during the company’s heyday. Back then, the photonics program was referred to as electro-optics.

“We’re certainly heading in the right direction,” Vogt said.

The goal of MCC’s program is to continue to service the needs of the industry, including the 120 local optics companies.

“My goal is that an optics graduate can come from our program, whether it’s with a one-year certificate or a two-year associate’s degree, and go out and work at Optimax or some other optics company and hit the ground running,” Vogt said. “I want to only teach the students what the industry actually needs.”

Vogt is working on expanding optics and photonics to high schools and primary schools to get youths thinking about a future in the field.

“I think our biggest obstacle at MCC right now is driving enrollment—getting more students in, but I consider that a good challenge to face,” Vogt said.

Rochester Institute of Technology had one of the first Ph.D. degrees in imaging science in the world.

“When you start talking about optics and photonics now, you’re talking about the areas that sort of built Rochester,” said Ryne Raffaelle, associate provost and vice president for research. “Kodak and Xerox and Bausch & Lomb and Corning—those are areas which are obviously historically very important to Rochester and are still very important to Rochester as well as the universities here.”

The need for skills in this area is clear.

“We don’t say that in imaging science that we have 100 percent placement. That’s just because it’s impossible to track every single person, but you’re pretty safe to say you’ve got a 99 percent placement,” Raffaelle said. “They continue to be degree programs (that are) very sought after and that a lot of opportunities exist.”

RIT was also one of the first schools in the country to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in microelectronics.

The AIM announcement means good things for Rochester, Raffaelle said.

“The first…grants that we’ve received in association with AIM photonics we’ve gotten now, so the money has started to flow there, so the research and development has begun,” he said. “To the extent that we have more faculty and students working in these areas and collaborating with companies—this is the groundswell that you hoped would take hold in Rochester.”

“It’s healthy growth. It hasn’t been explosive; it’s been nice and steady,” he added.

Based on the know-how and history of the Rochester region for the past few decades, Rochester has the upper hand on other cities, Raffaelle said.

“Even if…the great advancements in integrated photonics were being led by another city, or even another country—(that would be a) terrible thing—we definitely want to lead, but would it be good for Rochester in total? Yes, it would, because we have all these wonderful assets,” he said. “And even if the breakthrough is done somewhere else, we will be able to contribute and take advantage of it. I have tremendous reason to be optimistic here.”

St. John Fisher College’s physics department has acquired a new optics/photonics lab and has purchased new experiments for the lab.

The department offers junior-level optics and photonics courses for physics majors that include labs. The courses are also open to junior-level chemistry and biology students, officials said.

“These courses will prepare the students with the fundamental knowledge in theory and the experimental skill to be employed in the optical and photonic industries after graduation, or to further their studies through a master’s or doctoral degree,” said Foek Hioe, chair of the physics department.

The University of Rochester has created two summer courses on integrated photonics at its Institute of Optics since last year. The program also has a new faculty member, Jaime Cardenas, to help strengthen the integrated photonics offering.

Optics and photonics are part of a variety of industries, said Xi-Cheng Zhang, director and professor at UR’s Institute of Optics.

“Autonomous vehicles and drones require many optical systems and sensors,” he said.  “As these markets continue to develop, I expect considerable growth in both high-end and commodity optical systems and sensors.  Markets for virtual or augmented reality displays and networkable sensors will also likely grow.”

Optics and photonics are going to continue to make strides in Rochester and worldwide.

“The optics and photonics environment in Rochester remains strong,” Zhang said.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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