Optics Institute gets $12 million alumni challenge fund

Optics Institute gets $12 million alumni challenge fund

Home of the University of Rochester's Optics Institute, celebrating its centennial in 2022.
River Campus home of the University of Rochester’s Optics Institute, celebrating its centennial in 2022. (Photo provided)

The University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics is eyeing growth as it prepares to celebrate its centennial largely due to a multimillion alumni gift.

The institute will substantially increase its faculty thanks to a $12 million challenge fund endowed by UR life trustee James C. Wyant and his wife, Tammy.

The Wyants
Jim and Tammy Wyant

The couple will provide 60 percent of the $1.5 million required for a professorship and $2 million required for a distinguished professorship. They provided the gift to increase opportunities for optics training and research at UR.

The 10-year challenge fund – the largest gift in the institute’s history – will not only increase faculty, but it will also allow the institute to accept more students and expand its offerings, said institute director Thomas Brown.

“This institute is growing just like the world of optics is growing,” Brown said. “If you’re interested in optics, this is the place to be.”

Thomas Brown

Brown — who was named the institute’s director in July — has been on the faculty there since 1987, has held the rank of full professor since 2008 and is a Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor.

He said the newly established fund allows the institute to increase the number of its full-time faculty members to 30 from 20, with most of the expansion expected to occur in time for the institute’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2029.

The fund will create 10 endowed professorships — five distinguished professorships for renowned faculty and five professorships for early career faculty. A visiting professorship and staff position will also be endowed.

The first distinguished professorship will recognize Nobel Prize recipient Donna Strickland, one of the most notable alumni of the institute.

An $800,000 gift from Optica, a leading society in optics and photonics, will be matched with $1.2 million by the Wyant Challenge.

Brown anticipates having a candidate for the initial professorship this spring.

In addition to helping the institute keep pace with the competition domestically and internationally in the field of optics, the new professorships created because of the fund will bring a diverse group of young faculty members who will broaden the areas of study, Brown noted.

There will be a focus on hiring new faculty with expertise in laser science, integrated photonics and quantum optics, he said, adding that the institute is also reassessing its space needs on the campus.

Optics is being used increasingly in various industries, but there are only a handful of universities in the United States who offer a comprehensive educational and research program in optics, Brown explained.

The Institute of Optics at UR is one, as is the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona and the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Wyant, a pioneer in optics, was one of several institute graduates who settled in Tucson to help establish and grow the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona.

Sarah Mangelsdorf, university president and G. Robert Witmer, Jr. university professor, said the Wyants’ gift will help the university recruit leading scholars in optics and photonics in an increasingly competitive environment.

“It will dramatically impact how our Institute of Optics educates and trains the next generation of researchers and leaders,” she said.

The institute, which was founded in 1929 and is the nation’s oldest school of optics, has awarded about half of all optics degrees in the US.

There are roughly 300 students at the institute, Brown said. That includes about 170 undergraduates, 25 graduate students and a little more than 100 Ph.D. candidates.

While enrollment has stayed consistent over the past few years after growing considerably from where it was a decade ago, this year’s class included a record number of Ph.D. students.

In addition to the Wyant’s gift, the institute has received other funding.

Two awards were announced earlier this year that enable the institute to help address a need for highly trained PhD graduates, including women and underrepresented minorities, in industry, research labs and academia.

A $900,000 Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need grant from the US Department of Education will pay for six PhD fellowships, at least half of which will be awarded to students from underrepresented groups.

Another $500,000, to be matched by the university, comes from SPIE, the international society of optics and photonics.

The SPIE Endowment Matching Program award will initially provide a stipend and travel support for an additional student but is expected to grow.

The institute is well positioned for growth in terms of its programs, as well as its location, Brown said.

He noted the region is known for its cluster of optics, photonics and imaging companies.

“There’s no shortage of opportunities in our area for students who want to stay,” he said.

[email protected] / (585) 653-4021