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Catching Up with Kent

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2018
As he steps in to advance Eugene Arthurs’ legacy, Kent Rochford — SPIE’s first new CEO in 19 years — talks mission, vision, and tech literacy.

SUSAN PETRIE, SENIOR EDITOR, susan.petrie@photonics.com

Q: Were you serious about science as a young person? Was there a pivotal event or person who really put you on the path?

A: Actually, I wanted to be a musician. It just took me a while to realize that wasn’t in the cards. I had a math teacher who pushed me pretty hard, and I went into electrical engineering, leveraging the math but really hoping to have something to do with music. Then I happened upon an optical engineering class, and it was love at first sight. I was also lucky to have early supervisors who were great mentors, so I benefited from thoughtful advice along the way.

Q: Your background at NIST was metrology. What about that field captured your imagination?

A: Metrology sounds very narrow, but at the heart of understanding any phenomena is a measurement. And because measurements are everywhere, I was exposed to a broad array of technologies. Specializing in such a critical enabling technology as optics and photonics only increased my exposure, and provided lots of opportunity to work with a variety of industry segments and applications.

Q: What type of leader are you?

A: Through most of my career I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded with very smart people, so I’ve developed a collaborative style of leadership. I seek the best ideas, help people develop a common goal, and then support them to do great things. I often lead from behind, though I will get up front to “block and tackle” and remove barriers to help people get things done.

Q: What do you think of AR/VR?

A: I got to review some interesting projects at NIST last year that opened my eyes to the promise of AR/VR. One project used VR to visualize the modeled flow of aggregates, and you could plainly see ways to improve measurement tools. Another project started using AR to test and validate communication tools for first responders in simulated hazard environments, such as burning buildings. I think we’re only beginning to experience the power of this technology.

Q: Students are becoming technically literate earlier than ever. How is SPIE positioning itself to be a leader in technical education?

A: SPIE supports 329 student chapters, reaching about 100,000 people through local outreach programs, so we’re working hard to increase awareness at the student and local community levels. Many of our efforts — including the Women in Optics planner, the education directory, the guest lecturer program and scholarships, the SPIE Startup Challenge, and student author travel grants — are designed to inspire and support the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Last year, SPIE provided $4 million in support of education and outreach programs.

International Day of Light 2018; (left to right) Gilles Freddy Feutmba, Ghent University; SPIE CEO Kent Rochford; and Matthew Posner, University of Southampton. Both Feutmba and Posner are on the SPIE Student and Early Career Professional Ad Hoc Committee.

International Day of Light 2018; (left to right) Gilles Freddy Feutmba, Ghent University; SPIE CEO Kent Rochford; and Matthew Posner, University of Southampton. Both Feutmba and Posner are on the SPIE Student and Early Career Professional Ad Hoc Committee. Courtesy of SPIE.

Supporting teachers, who are the front line in getting young people excited about optics and photonics, is core to our mission. We provide workshops at science-teacher conferences, and offer free educational resources. The most popular are the diffraction glasses and our beautiful and instructive posters on topics such as food and water safety, the solar eclipse, and women in optics. We also sponsor 10 to 15 Prismatic Magic laser shows every year. At a recent Washington, D.C., event, 16,000 students, teachers, and families participated in this fun and educational showcase of how lasers work. In addition, through our international scholarship program, more than 500 scholarships have been awarded over the past five years. And, every other year at SPIE Optics + Photonics — including this August — we host a conference on Optics Education and Outreach, specifically aimed at helping school and community educators incorporate light-based sciences into their courses and curriculums. We are proud of the programs we already have in place, and are always working on new ideas.

Q: The International Day of Light, May 16, seems like another great way to break into the consciousness of the general public. Any particular activities on the horizon or specific goals you’d like to accomplish through this venue?

A: Educating the general public about the many ways in which light and light-based technologies affect our daily lives is at the heart of SPIE’s goals as a society; the International Day of Light (IDL) is just one aspect of our global efforts. Apart from our roles as an IDL steering committee member and a media partner with UNESCO, we produced digital resources and tools — including videos, posters, and activity worksheets, which will be updated annually — so our members and constituents can share their passion for light in their own communities. On our Photonics for a Better World blog, we created a campaign entitled “Why Light?,” which showcases stories about how light inspires our community. The blog also answers FAQs about the IDL and offers ideas and tips, such as the top 10 ways to mark the annual celebration. We also run a highly successful IDL microgrant program for SPIE members, and our IDL photo contest is open to anyone, professional or amateur, who is interested in light and photography. IDL is a great opportunity to rally the photonics community around outreach each year, and SPIE plans to continue to make it a priority in 2019.

Q: Photonics as an enabling technology is inspiring change and innovation in many sectors, which also brings a lot of excitement. Are there any areas that cause concern?

A: I think, like a lot of industries, we wonder about the workforce pipeline, and we get concerned that there may not be enough kids interested to become practitioners. Because photonics is an enabling technology, there isn’t always high-level awareness that it plays a role in optical fibers, which means it’s also part of things like social media, smartphones, and robotics. But intellectually curious people have a way of finding these things out, so that gives me confidence.

Q: Many older people think of technology as invasive, or believe the barrier to entry is too expensive or too complex. Can you discuss some ways that photonics developments might be useful to a population that is inclined to avoid or resist it?

A: This reminds me of an initiative called “aging in place,” something that the U.S. and Japan are looking into together. It is considered from the point of view of the user’s needs (freedom to move) and affordability. How can technology be responsive? For example, a home for an older person who has trouble walking may be equipped with banks of sensors that can respond if the person has fallen, maybe an alert for help. Sensors are a large part of the photonics industry, so we’re right there.

Technical illiteracy (or ignorance) has profound societal implications, beyond just the challenges of maintaining an innovative workforce or the personal enrichment of better comprehending the world around you. Understanding technology (or not) certainly influences attitudes, preferences, and fears, and this drives decisions, votes, and policies.

Q: What areas of photonics research do you think are going to be transformational? The future of quantum sensing? The impact of silicon photonics? AR/VR? Lidar? Miniaturized sensors for the smart home and/or smart city?

A: All of the above, and more. As connectivity becomes ubiquitous and computing/storage power increases, the opportunities for sensing, measuring, identifying, interpreting, and interacting with the physical world are endless. These opportunities hit the sweet spot for photonics, and they are mutually reinforcing — more data will drive more connectivity, which opens more opportunities and applications, and we just keep building.

Quantum sensors will take all of this to the next level, with unprecedented sensitivity and precision that opens entirely new applications and ultimately leads to quantum computation that could enable solutions to intractable problems in material design, logistics, and data analysis. I think we are entering a golden age for optics and photonics.

Q: What are your top two or three goals for SPIE in the coming years?

A: I’m very fortunate to be following Eugene Arthurs, who is leaving an effective and healthy SPIE after 19 years as CEO. I’ve been very impressed with the competence and passion of SPIE staff. We’re in a great place, but we can always do better.

SPIE’s mission is to help our community advance optics and photonics. We have a reputation for holding very effective meetings — Photonics West is arguably the flagship event for our field — but one goal I have is to find even more ways to increase the value of participation. People are busy, and our field is fast-moving, so we need to provide the technical information our constituents demand by providing the most effective and meaningful conferences, exhibits, publications, and short courses possible. Continually improving our ability to meet the needs of our diverse community is a major goal. For example, SPIE is investing to capture and disseminate presentations from our events, in both video and transcribed form, to help speakers share their results and to help engineers and scientists learn at their desks. Right now we have more than 14,000 presentations among the half million papers in the SPIE Digital Library.

Q: Which SPIE activities have been most successful in increasing the awareness of photonics? Are there new ideas you’d like to implement in the coming years? Do you think SPIE (as a thought leader) can permeate the consciousness of the general public?

A: In the U.S., SPIE, along with The Optical Society and other professional optics societies, is one of the founding members of the National Photonics Initiative, which works to raise public policy awareness of the value of photonics among our Washington, D.C., decision-makers. Internationally, SPIE has made significant investments to support the International Day of Light to increase worldwide awareness of photonics. The 2018 event was very successful, with more than 600 activities in 87 countries, many of which were very inclusive, bringing nontechnical people into the fold. It’s very important for nonspecialists to have the opportunity to understand the technical world around them.

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based science, engineering, and technology.

SPIEKent RochfordInternational Day of LightIDLNISToptics + photonics metrologyaging in placeNational Photonics InitiativeFeatures

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