Photonics Education Is Boosted by Business Collaboratives
Anne L. Fische
At a time when job prospects are nonexistent for many recent college graduates, technical majors are still finding employment, according to David Brady, professor and director of the Fitzpatrick Center at Duke University in Durham, N.C. University photonics centers are increasing in number, and their state-of-the-art facilities and intriguing research projects help lure undergrads into photonics degree programs. In addition, the students are trained in real-world research, giving them the experience they need to secure jobs in the photonics industry after graduation.
Research is conducted in the packaging lab, currently housed at Eastman Kodak Co., one of the Infotonics Technology Center's founding corporate partners.
Rather than training students in laboratory settings only, Boston University has forged relationships with businesses in reciprocal partnerships that provide benefits to all involved. Agilent Technologies of Palo Alto, Calif., and the US Army Research Laboratory assisted the university in equipping its integrated optics labs with state-of-the-art instrumentation. Agilent continues to supply training to BU researchers and incubator companies at the Photonics Center. This reciprocal arrangement is advantageous to students because they work on actual projects with businesses and have access to the latest equipment.
The start-up company Solx is one that incubated at the Boston center for three years before releasing a system based on a Ti:sapphire laser for the treatment of glaucoma. According to Doug Adams, founder of Solx, it took the BU researchers only 18 months to take the patent-pending design, create a working prototype and put it into production.
The laser, which offers a unique treatment for glaucoma patients, is installed in a clinic in Madrid, Spain, and will soon be on the market in Europe. Food and Drug Administration clearance in the US is pending. Adams believes his product would never have been brought to market so quickly if it were not for the help from the students, researchers and resources of the Photonics Center.
Gain R&D, recruits
These collaboratives benefit the businesses by helping with recruitment, staying in touch with labs that are working on the cutting edge of many technologies, and enhancing their own research and development. As Brady pointed out, "Companies don't do internal research and development the way they used to." By working with universities, they reap the benefit of hands-on R&D within the university labs.
At Duke's Fitzpatrick Center, students can now take a project management class that involves interaction with a variety of companies, including Agilent; Nortel Networks of Brampton, Ontario, Canada; Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.; and Celestica Inc. of Toronto. The incentive came from looking at what the graduates were really doing in the workplace, and finding that there was a "disconnect," Brady said, "where we tend to emphasize analytic skills but students haven't worked on the big picture." By working with real companies on developing real products for commercialization, students are able to gain valuable management skills.
Some of the challenges of these partnerships include building trust and gaining confidence in one another. Brady said that intellectual property was also an issue for some time, but he feels that they've reached "a fairly sophisticated level of competence there." Although everyone has limited manpower, collaborating is a terrific boon for all parties involved and requires staying in contact and having realistic expectations.
Many partnerships involve state and federal government agencies, adding more challenges. The Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations, for example, includes 50 companies, 25 universities and 12 government agencies. Besides helping advance photonics research in Canada, one of the group's objectives is to encourage students to study in Canada and to stay there upon graduating.
Another example of a government/business/university collaborative is the Infotonics Technology Center near Rochester, N.Y., which focuses on micro-optic electrical systems. Fourteen New York-based colleges are involved with research at the center, which was partially funded by Eastman Kodak Co. of Rochester, Xerox Corp. of Stamford, Conn., and Corning Inc. of Corning, N.Y. Each company pledged $15 million worth of equipment, labor and other resources over a five-year period, and New York state taxpayers will fund an additional $43 million.
Located in a former Xerox ink-jet printer plant in Canandaigua, N.Y., the site will have 30,000 square feet of cleanroom space and 80 offices. The center will employ 60 people in a nonprofit organization. Eventually, a commercial, for-profit entity will be spun off, and research into biosensors, health monitoring systems and tools for genetics may become commercial ventures.
A photonics future
Because these collaboratives offer exciting on-campus work combined with appealing job prospects, they entice undergraduates to focus on photonics. By working with real businesses, students become the companies' research and development labs, and they gain the knowledge of how to promote new products or technologies for commercial use.
Some schools have incubator programs, such as Arizona State University's Center for Solid-State Science in Tucson, where students develop products and create a company to commercialize them. Partnerships also put state-of-the-art equipment in labs, such as Nikon's involvement with the imaging center at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Here students use high-end equipment that the university otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford to purchase or keep up to date.
One benefit to the students is that, in a tough job market, they're receiving training on equipment that they may be using on the job, and through the partnerships, they're developing real applications rather than just simulations.
These joint efforts allow sharing of resources and knowledge. Businesses benefit from training prospective employees before they graduate and, as noted by Kristina Johnson, dean of Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, save the time and expense of having to retrain them.
Photonics is a growing field, with huge opportunities for graduates. By combining resources in innovative partnerships, the next generation of photonics engineers will be well-trained to keep the industry vibrant and viable.
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