An interview with Dr. Howard R. Schlossberg, conducted by Dr. Milton M.T. Chang
Howard R. Schlossberg is program manager for Basic Research in Lasers and Optics in the Physics and Electronics Directorate of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). He also is the program manager for the Medical Free Electron Laser Program. He received a PhD from MIT and has been a visiting fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He worked for AVCO Everett Research Laboratory and joined Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories in 1968 to begin his outstanding career with the Air Force, funding a broad range of projects in lasers and optics. He is a life fellow of the Optical Society of America (OSA) and of the IEEE, a senior fellow of the Air Force Research Laboratory, and a member of the American Society of Lasers in Medicine and Surgery and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received the Optical Society Leadership Award/New Focus Prize in 1998, an Air Force meritorious civilian service award in 1989, and an Industrial Research and Development IR-100 award in 1978.
Milton Chang is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in businesses related to photonics technologies. Former CEO/president of Newport Corp. and New Focus Inc., he sits on the boards of Precision Photonics and of OpVista. He earned a BS from the University of Illinois and MS and PhD degrees from California Institute of Technology. He is a fellow of IEEE, of OSA and of the Laser Institute of America (LIA) and is a former president of the IEEE Laser Electro-Optics Society and of LIA. He is on the board of trustees of Caltech and is a member of its Committee of 100.
Milton Chang: When did you get into this field?
Howard Schlossberg: I joined Ali Javan as his first graduate student at MIT in 1962 with the blessing of Charlie Townes. As you know, Ali invented the first gas laser at Bell Labs. Between the two of them, it was quite a remarkable education, both in physics and in how to get research done.
What is this job like at AFOSR granting contracts?
Money has been good compared to the growing number of people looking for it. The DOD [Department of Defense] funding agencies have a lot of flexibility; we can build programs following our own judgment. When you are in lasers or optics, you have such wonderful license to get into almost anything: navigational devices, signal processing, information processing — and we got very big into materials processing.
Which aspect of materials processing?
In the beginning it was largely focused on semiconductors, selective etching or selective doping, even making three-dimensional devices like MEMS. We currently have an excellent program in
3-D structures in laser-processed glass ceramics.
What are some of the things you did that you are proud of?
One of the administrative things I did that I am happy about, together with my good friend Bobby Guenther, when he was at the Army Research Office, was to start up programs with a few very talented people where we made life easy for them — one proposal, one report, and everybody puts in the funds.
Funding based on trust!
That’s exactly right. Trust is a very large part of this business, and it is even true with younger people.
How do you make that judgment call?
By spending time in their locations or in conferences to get to know people. The longer you know them, the more you trust them.
There are concerns that our R&D has declined relative to other countries’. What’s your opinion?
I tend to be a little contrarian in that. It’s not that we’re losing to our competition, it’s just that the competition is getting strong. We’re not always going to win, but competition should be good for us. When I read things about our shortage of scientists and engineers, I figure that if we really had shortages, I would expect salaries to be going up faster than they are.
The percentage of foreign students is high in graduate school?
Most of them want to stay here. Our country makes it very hard for them to stay, but many of them do. I find myself writing several letters a year to the immigration services to support people’s applications to stay, and most of the time they are successful.
What about the quality of students?
A respected professor said to me, “They’re the best I’ve ever seen.” My biggest concern is that we have too many students who are graduating relative to the [research] money we have available to them. Not because the money has gone down so much as the number of people seeking it has gone up.
So how does someone starting out get established?
First of all, as a graduate student, you have to learn something about the game. Secondly, you have to get to know the people. You have to be very persistent but patient; it takes time to build trust. There are no secrets about how to get money; you have to have good research to sell. The other thing is that you have to be flexible, go where the money is. For example, a lot of new money gets put into these small business programs. When you interact with a program manager like me, you might want to think about how you might want to work with small businesses to get into a small business program rather than a normal grant program.
I didn’t know you give out SBIR contracts.
We do the Air Force STTR, which is like the SBIR but requires a nonprofit partner. We have substantial money in that program, around $35 million a year.
Is it helpful to be active in professional societies?
Absolutely! One of the important functions is to get to know people, discuss ideas, renew acquaintances and gain exposure to folks like myself to see what kinds of things are being funded.
OK, no secret sauce, but still would like to get more good advice.
Another area that tends to have new money is center programs, which DOD calls multidisciplinary (MURI) programs. You either can lead or be part of these multi-investor programs rather than go after very limited single-grant money. There is also the DEPSCoR program [Defense Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research], which is money set aside for states that don’t get their fair share of federal money. We and the Office of Naval Research have young investigator programs that are very competitive. It is money set aside for people who are less than five years from their PhD. Our Web site — www.afosr.af.mil — does this reasonably well. It has one button, “Need funding,” and it links to some of these programs.
Any interesting programs you’ve managed?
For the past 20 years I have been involved in the Medical Free Electron Laser Program, and for the past 10 years, I’ve been the program manager. It is a community of physicians, physicists and engineers working together. We have funded some very talented people to do some very important medicine. We have a program in photodynamic therapy that addresses drug infections in wounds as well as drug-resistant infectious diseases, such as MRSA [methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus], which has provoked national hysteria. Photodynamic therapy appears to cause no drug resistance, and, if it works, it works fast, whereas antibiotics take days to work.
The name ‘free electron laser’ evokes controversy.
Free electron lasers have done little if anything directly for medicine. The proud outcome is the medicine under the program. The idea was that these are powerful lasers that are tunable to any wavelength, so you can use them to find a wavelength that might do something useful. One example is optical nerve stimulation, an important success of the program, which, among other advantages, allows focusing down to stimulate individual nerves, unlike electrical stimulation, which stimulates bundles.
OK, what are the areas that excite you?
The idea of multikilowatt single-mode output from a relatively compact fiber laser surprises me. At some power level, we have to learn a bit more about ceramics. Now that the cost of lasers is coming down, I think we should look harder at the application side. The diode laser bars, single-mode diode lasers for diagnostics in medicine and in combustion, a laser-driven TV set, a laser instead of spark plugs in engines, optical tomography for ophthalmology and for scanning for esophageal cancer in a few seconds, and other things. But I wonder why inexpensive lasers are taking so long to appear, aside from in real volume applications like CD players.
I always end with: What advice do you have for young people?
My generation could afford to go into science just because it was fun and there was a career out there. Today, it is more necessary to know what you are getting into. You should consider a career where you can sell your services, instead of going into a field of science which is either so obscure or so basic that it’s going to be hard to make a living at.