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Profile: Leader has a passion for optics

Scott Carney began July 1 as the 11th director of UR’s Institute of Optics

It is one thing for a person’s passion to be all-consuming and another thing for that passion to be part of nearly everything in the modern world.

For Scott Carney, both ideas were true as he became a student of optics as a youth.

The world was essentially his live-in laboratory and offered him a chance to test theories and scientific notions that have occupied the minds of scientists for centuries.

“I knew I wanted to do physics,” he says. “I loved optics because optics is the physics you can see. You carry around your best instrument (your eyes) all the time. I could do little experiments out in the world by squinting at things, so I loved that aspect of it.”

He has channeled his passion into a role that has a direct impact on the future of the optics industry.

Carney, 45, once a doctoral student at the University of Rochester, has returned to the region to become the 11th director of UR’s Institute of Optics. He began in the post on July 1.

The institute has some 175 undergraduate majors and 140 graduate students. Its faculty stands at 20 full-time tenured and tenure-track professors. It also has 11 professors with secondary appointments; nine adjunct faculty members, two part-time faculty, two senior scientists, approximately 22 research scientists and post-doctoral associates and nine staff members.

“I was very much interested in being back in the Northeast and I was absolutely thrilled to be at Rochester,” he says. “It was a great school then, it’s a great school now.”

Carney brings a strong educational background, insights and best practices from being an entrepreneur, and the approachability of being a faculty member who has spent the last decade working with students and colleagues.

Learning environment

Growing up in Barneveld, Oneida County, Carney was raised by his mother and grandparents.

Subscriptions to publications such as Scientific American, access to a variety of books and reading the World Book Encyclopedia with relatives growing up provided an environment in which a curious youth like Carney could thrive.

He was the first in his family to get a college degree.

“My grandmother was simply a voracious reader and my early memories are all of quite literally reading the encyclopedia with (her),” he says. “And so we didn’t have much, but we had books and we had subscriptions to things and that came close behind or tied with or maybe even a little ahead of food.”

Carney wrestled with big questions early on.

“Like a lot of young kids, I wanted to understand the universe—what is this thing I’m stuck in,” Carney says. “I’ve always had deep questions about what we are.”

He began taking college classes at Hamilton College and by age 15 he did a summer internship in a photonics lab at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, Oneida County.

“I was in the lab working with my hands and I was at the same time fairly mathematically sophisticated, and so I started learning a lot of the optical physics because of the experiences I was having in the lab,” Carney says. “The people who were there were great mentors, and they made optics and physics and engineering a lot of fun to be in.”

Illinois connections

Carney attended the University of Illinois for his bachelor of science degree in engineering physics.

Fiber-optics was just starting to change the way the world communicated when Carney was getting into the field.

“My early exposure was really in fiber, so as a kid in high school it was in fiber-optics and communications,” he says. “At that point people were putting fiber under the ocean; that was the big push. I think it was hard for people to imagine the digital imaging revolution. The densities we’re at now and the speeds we’re at now were unthinkable.”

At Illinois, Carney realized he wanted to work on applied problems versus theoretical research. While at UR, he was a student of Emil Wolf, a renowned physicist and author of prominent books within the field of optics. The experience directly affected the direction of Carney’s career.

Once completing his Ph.D. in 1994, he thought it was time to leave academia.

He had an offer from a consulting company but on a whim ended up applying for a post at Washington University in St. Louis. He saw an ad for the position on the back of Physics Today.

“I was convinced I was not going to stay in academia,” Carney says. “It seemed exciting and modern at the time—I emailed my resume and I got a phone call 20 minutes later and I went out for the interview and it was just love.”

At Washington University, Carney linked up with John Schotland, who became his postdoctoral adviser. Schotland was working on medical imaging related to breast cancer at the time.

Today Schotland is professor of mathematics and physics and director of the Institute for Applied and Interdisciplinary Mathematics, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“I was extraordinarily fortunate to be able to attract him to my group,” Schotland says. “Scott is a quadruple threat. He is an outstanding researcher and educator. He also has exceptional leadership qualities and has substantial entrepreneurial skills. In my experience, an individual who combines all of these talents is exceedingly rare.”

Rochester will benefit from someone such as Carney in a leadership role, Schotland says.

“I can’t imagine someone who would be better qualified to take on the leadership of the Institute of Optics, which is a crown jewel of the University of Rochester,” he says. “Scott’s understanding of the connections between industry and academia could be very powerful. I think that he will be able to attract the interest of the business community in a way that many academics would not be able to.”

Instead of working with medical imaging, Carney worked on near-field optics and remained at Washington University for three years.

“I got completely sidetracked (with near-field optics) and two years later it was my career,” Carney says.

He applied to work at Bell Labs but the company’s changing circumstances led him to apply for a faculty position at Illinois.

“When I left that job I thought for a little bit I was going to escape academia—I thought I’d built up escape velocity,” Carney says. “I had this classic Bell Labs interview where I thought I did really well and I thought I got the job and I got an email a few weeks after the interview saying, ‘sorry we’re being sold to the French and all of our hiring is on freeze…you’re on your own.’”

Carney became a professor at Illinois. There he shifted his focus to engineering physics and found more mentors. One was Gary Swenson, a rocket scientist.

“He worked for NASA, worked for big aerospace companies, had put big stuff in space and there’s no one better to learn engineering from—what it really means to be an engineer—than someone like that,” Carney says.

Engineering, optics and physics are often grouped together; however optics is a unifying force.

“Optics straddles everything,” Carney says. “That’s one of the reasons I like it so much.”

Shifting to engineering helped him understand the role it plays on a deeper level. Today, attempts at pairing science and engineering together can often miss the point, he said.

“This whole STEM thing is kind of funny because in a way it does a disservice to engineering because it lumps together science and technology and mathematics with engineering,” Carney says. “In my mind, engineering is much more like medicine and business and the arts. The thing about engineering is that engineering is about creating, science is about discovering. There is the world as we would have it be and that’s engineering.”

In 2008, Carney and Stephen Boppart—a colleague at Illinois—co-founded a medical device company. Carney became chief scientific officer of Chicago-based Diagnostic Photonics Inc.

It is a startup with products that create high-resolution imaging with a very high depth of field to improve the resolution of medical images. He remains in that role.

Andrew Cittadine became its president and CEO in 2011.

“Scott is extremely bright,” Cittadine says. “His work and understanding of optics and optical technologies is world class. What sets Scott apart is his ability to connect with people. Despite being one of the smartest in the room, he is also one of the most approachable.

“It’s Scott’s combination of intelligence, humility and genuine interest in those around him that differentiates and wins him much respect,” he adds. “Scott will be an excellent director for the UR Optics Institute.”

To achieve greater resolution of images, the inverse problem had to be solved. Carney and peers did the math necessary in order to move Diagnostic Photonics forward in an afternoon.

“We went from on the board to working experiments in about two weeks, and it was also a good sign for what would later be the commercial operation, because what it really meant was in some ways it was easy to do—and you really don’t want to build a company around things that are hard to do,” he says. “What you really want is something that everyone thinks is hard to do but you know it’s easy that’s a good thing to build a company around.”

Entrepreneurship was not something Carney saw himself taking part in at first. Once he got involved, he became a believer.

“At Illinois I was approached early on and asked if I was interested in entrepreneurship, and I scoffed at the idea,” Carney says. “The most zealous leaders are converts.”

As director of the Institute of Optics, he sees entrepreneurship as a way that helps an entire community make progress using one of its greatest assets: its universities and their brainpower.

“I am incredibly enthusiastic about entrepreneurship as a means to take the intellectual product of the institute and the university and do good in the world with it and as a means to help build the greater Rochester community,” he says. “I think there’s an enormous amount of talent here in town and I hope that the institute will be part of putting that to work and continuing to put it to work.”

Historical impact

Started in 1929, the Institute of Optics is the oldest institute of its kind in the country.

Entrepreneurship has always been part of the region and the optical community here, Carney says.

“The institute here at Rochester comes out of a very industrial history with Xerox and Bausch & Lomb and Eastman Kodak,” says Carney, who lives in the city but is buying a house in Pittsford. “There’s a lot to do; it’s a big job.”

He is excited about continuing to build out the engineering side and the applied science side of the institute.

“At the same time we have been home to some of the most influential optical scientists in the world. We need to make sure we don’t neglect that,” he says. “This is home. It’s funny—I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be.”

Rohit Bhargava has known Carney for over a decade. They were colleagues at Illinois, and Bhargava was founder and director of the cancer center and is a professor of engineering there.

“Scott is amazing; it is exhilarating to work with him,” he says. “He is obviously very smart and a deep scholar. He can quickly recognize good ideas and focus on precisely what may be needed to make progress.

“Scott is an exceptionally rigorous scientist, an original thinker and a truly fantastic person who deeply cares about his colleagues, collaborators and students. These qualities make him one of the leading optics theorists in our time.”

Not all academics can tackle the practical problems of the business world. Carney can, Bhargava said.

“Scott is the academic that has translated his science to practical products,” he says. “At Illinois, he was one of the leading forces behind entrepreneurship topics and education for undergraduates. He is a successful entrepreneur himself. Hence, I expect he will be a great sounding board and a voice for the business community.”

There is always someone Carney is chasing. The people who have gone before him have modeled the way.

Carney’s predecessor, Xi-Cheng Zhang, made positive changes to the institute, ones Carney plans to continue, he said.

“Xi-Cheng’s been incredibly supportive and wonderfully helpful in the transition,” Carney says.  “Xi-Cheng has done a number of really wonderful things for the program here. He led a renaissance.”

Those changes include expanding the educational side of the institute, helping to grow student enrollment and increasing diversity in the student body. Zhang also advocated for a connection to industry, something that will remain under Carney’s watch.

“He’s also brought in a lot of international master’s students which is wonderful for the institute,” Carney says. “We have always had a pretty good international presence, but it gives us a wonderful opportunity to put our brand out there around the world, especially in China and India and Russia where there are developing economies that are growing at incredible rates, and optics is a big part of that.”

Carney plans to spend the rest of the year understanding the institute in new ways while looking towards its future.

Optics is a competitive industry; however, history is on Rochester’s side. Every new optics program helps to support all institutes in the country by bringing awareness to the industry.

“We support each other; we are part of a larger optics community,” Carney says.

Today as an administrator, he has to laugh at himself.

“Like most young faculty I definitely would have scoffed at the idea of being in administration,” Carney says. “I feel a bit like Darth Vader. I was an ambitious and idealistic young Jedi once and now I’m just the guy in the black mask.”

The childhood wonder of optics remains with Carney today. His world continues to inspire him.

“Optics really is important to the world right now and so much of what’s going on, from renewable energy and solar energy to entertainment display technology,” Carney says.

Just go to a movie and optics will move you, he says. Other areas like self-driving cars are built on core technology that is an optical technology.

“That’s what makes it fun to do as a profession is that you walk around in the world and everything is optics at different scales and in different ways,” he says.

kfeltner@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4020

Scott Carney

Title: director, the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics; professor of optics, UR; chief scientific officer for Diagnostic Photonics Inc.

Age: 45

Education: B.S. in engineering physics, University of Illinois, 1994; Ph.D in physics, University of Rochester, 1999

Family: wife, Deborah Tedrick; sons, Ethan, 14 and Leif, 10

Residence: Rochester; moving to Pittsford next month

Hobbies: an avid cyclist and a zip line enthusiast

Quote: “Like most young faculty I definitely would have scoffed at the idea of being in administration… I feel a bit like Darth Vader. I was an ambitious and idealistic young Jedi once and now I’m just the guy in the black mask.”

(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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