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Research the Key to a Rich, Meaningful Undergraduate Photonics Education

BioPhotonics
Mar 2017
Aydogan Ozcan, UCLA

These are very exciting times for photonics research and education. Starting in 2015 with the International Year of Light (IYL) events and celebrations, we have had unique opportunities to communicate to the world the broad impact and achievements that light science and technology enabled, spanning almost all aspects of modern life including the internet, telecommunications, entertainment, education, medicine and metrology, among many others. These IYL-related public events also have increased the curiosity of young minds at various ages about optics and photonics fields. As a result of this, youngsters and especially undergraduate students have been attracted to our fields much more than ever before.

This is not only a great window of opportunity for all of us, but is also an important responsibility. To transform this exciting and timely opportunity into real impact to globally train and educate the next generations of photonics scientists and engineers, our community has to be proactive in the creation and significant expansion of undergraduate research opportunities in our labs. This will give these young minds firsthand experience in cutting-edge photonics research.

Through such undergraduate research and training programs in our institutions, we will generate transformative impact on the overall quality of undergraduate optics education by:

(1) Providing unique interdisciplinary and hands-on optics-related research experiences for undergraduate students, also shaping their scientific thinking and curiosity;

(2) Increasing the placement of undergraduate students in optics and photonics-related graduate programs, research labs and R&D efforts in the science and technology workforce; and

(3) Creating role models and resource centers for other institutions and universities for adapting similar optics-focused undergraduate research and training programs at a global scale.

The sophistication and technical depth of our scholarship and research projects can sometimes create challenges for us to find appropriate levels of projects to which undergraduate students can make meaningful contributions with their limited time commitment and background.

While this might initially look like a challenging problem for many of us, I can assure you through firsthand experience that undergraduate students, if trained through an appropriate lab infrastructure, can become extremely valuable members of a project team and make meaningful scholarly contributions that deserve co-authorship in resulting publications. In fact, several of my own undergraduate researchers have published more than 150 journal articles and conference proceedings with us over the last few years, and even served as first authors in several of these publications. Some of these very successful undergraduate researchers with several publications resulting from their work received prestigious fellowships and graduate scholarships despite the fact that they had rather low or modest GPAs. This taught me how classroom-based teaching can be quite different and, in some cases, mislead our judgment.

Such an exciting and productive research experience for these students also helped their retention in STEM-related fields. In fact, almost 100 percent of these students, after graduation, continued to either graduate school or science- and technology-related industry positions with a significant research background in optics.

The undergraduate research and training program in my lab also has been helping with diversity since a significant portion of these students have been women and from under-represented backgrounds. In addition to my personal experience, many research labs in photonics, such as professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum’s lab at Rice University, and in various other fields as well, have provided ample evidence over decades to the advantages of undergraduate research and training. These programs can lead to increased productivity for cutting-edge research and development, in addition to providing excellent opportunities for increasing diversity and retention rates in optics and photonics fields.

Aydogan OzcanWith this recent window of exciting opportunity created by the IYL, it is now the time to make this successful practice a widely embraced global culture in optics/photonics education and training at the undergraduate level.

Meet the author

Aydogan Ozcan is the Chancellor’s Professor at UCLA, an HHMI Professor with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, leading the bio- and nano-photonics laboratory at the UCLA School of Engineering, and the associate director of the California NanoSystems Institute. He is also a member of the BioPhotonics editorial advisory board; email: ozcan@ucla.edu.

The views expressed in Biopinion are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Photonics Media. To submit a Biopinion, send a few sentences outlining the proposed topic to marcia.stamell@photonics.com. Accepted submissions will be reviewed and edited for clarity, accuracy, length and conformity to Photonics Media style.

GLOSSARY
metrology
The science of measurement, particularly of lengths and angles.
metrologyBiopinionbiophotonicsAydogan OzcanUCLAResearch and Technologyeducationoptics

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