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A Wealth of Opportunities from a Little Generosity

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2007
Scientists needed to foster next generation of researchers.

Alexander A. Sawchuk, Optical Society of America

At heart, I’m a scientist and an engineer. I enjoy the process of figuring out how things work and how various pieces fit together to make an efficiently functioning system. The challenge of solving problems, whether in optics, information processing, teaching a concept or running a business, is extremely rewarding.

Sawchuk.jpgI’m also a mentor. I get great satisfaction from teaching a class and watching students progress from confusion to mastery. Guiding graduate students through the process of defining a thesis, pursuing research, articulating their results and communicating their findings provides a special satisfaction. As a businessman, I have tried to mentor employees in the same way; their development fuels the company’s success.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have had opportunities for research, teaching, academic administration and starting a business. Following my passions has been both personally and financially rewarding.

My wife and I both feel that those who have benefited from these kinds of opportunities have a responsibility to give back — or perhaps to give “forward.” The best way to offer thanks to the many people who supported and inspired me throughout my career is to find creative, effective ways to help others, particularly young people.

I’m especially interested in and concerned about science and mathematics education, particularly in the US. Many of our brightest students are turning away from science to pursue fields such as business or law. Why? Perhaps it is because many elementary-through-high-school math and science teachers don’t have the background or the resources to bring science alive for their students. Perhaps schools don’t offer enough tutoring or advanced courses or don’t connect science to real life. In a country where many — if not most — kids have cell phones, we should be able to interest them in how these instruments work.

In college and in graduate schools, young people often are held back by financial constraints. Textbooks are expensive. Trips to conferences are expensive. Unpaid summer internships or short courses are impossible.

Making a difference

That is why I decided to become involved with organizations that support science education in the US and throughout the world. The creator of the next great invention, the person who will change the world as much as the Internet or the cell phone has, is out there. We have to make sure that he or she gets the education and the resources to make the creative and technical leap required. Not only have I played an active role in the Optical Society of America, supporting the organization’s philanthropic efforts as a member of the OSA Foundation’s board of directors, but I also am taking a personal interest in finding ways to support science education throughout the world, most recently with the International Commission for Optics.

These organizations support people such as Lazaro A. Padilha Jr., a PhD student at Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil, who won an OSA Foundation travel grant to attend Frontiers in Optics, the society’s 2005 annual meeting in Tucson, Ariz. There he presented a paper on two-photon absorption in semiconductor quantum dots — and received a postdoctoral offer that sent his career on a new trajectory.

The rewards of getting involved are great. Two years ago, my wife and I helped replenish a library in an elementary school in the disadvantaged Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. A whole new section of books on science replaced the tattered and out-of-date collection from the 1960s. The library has become the focal point for a new science curriculum.

In 2006, students from this school won a citywide science competition, defeating students from magnet schools and wealthier communities.

GroupShot_59141.jpgWe didn’t make that happen. The kids did. The teachers did. We just helped to provide an environment in which they could flourish. You can do that, too. You can volunteer your time, share a bit of your talent or offer your financial support.

You don’t have to be Warren Buffet or Bill Gates to make a difference. Ask yourself if a local school couldn’t benefit from an occasional optics lesson. Or make a presentation about science at career day. Introduce a graduate student to a mentor. Look for ways to provide resources to scientists in developing nations who may not have access to books or up-to-date peer-reviewed journals.

Together, we can tackle the local and global problems of science education and find effective solutions. Together, we can mentor the next generation of scientists and engineers — and have a lot of fun in the process.

Meet the author

Alexander A. Sawchuk is professor and chair of the Ming Hsieh department of electrical engineering-systems at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, as well as a member of the board of directors of the OSA Foundation and a founding member of the OSA Foundation Optics Trust; e-mail:

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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