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January 24, 2002

Firms hungry for photonics expertise turn to Pitt program

One of the things that James Kimbrell, chief technologist at Brashear L.P., likes about Pitt's undergraduate certificate program in photonics is that students don't have to complete all of the courses required for the certificate before graduating with their bachelor's degrees.

"Through this program, it's possible for students to graduate, get a job, and then go back to Pitt and complete, say, the last couple of courses that they need for the certificate," Kimbrell says. "That means we can recruit them early in their senior years. If you wait until February or March of their senior years, you're not going to have much chance of snagging these students."

Brashear L.P., an O'Hara-based optical systems company, isn't the only employer eager to snap up Pitt graduates with photonics training, says certificate program director David W. Snoke.

"One of my Ph.D. students was recently hired by a laser company in Connecticut. He hardly even had to apply for the job. High-tech companies are really hunting for people with photonics training" — especially younger people with undergraduate degrees, for entry-level positions, according to Snoke.

"Nationally, we're graduating many more graduate students in photonics right now than undergraduates. Yet, when I go to conferences, high-tech employers are saying they typically want 10 bachelor's-level graduates for every Ph.D," Snoke says.

That was part of Pitt's rationale for launching, in fall 2000, its undergraduate certificate program in photonics. To earn the certificate, undergrads majoring in chemistry, physics or electrical engineering must take the equivalent of six-to-seven extra courses. Most are scaled-down versions of Pitt graduate-level photonics courses, Snoke says.

One reason that photonics companies have difficulty finding qualified employees is that photonics is an interdisciplinary field crossing over traditional boundaries of physics, physical chemistry and electrical engineering.

"Until recently, we couldn't find any photonics specialists," says Brashear L.P.'s Kimbrell, who chairs the board of visitors of Pitt's mechanical engineering department. "We were hiring electrical engineers, physicists and mathematicians, who would then go through an extended period of on-the-job training."

This spring, three undergrads are expected to be the first to complete Pitt's photonics certificate. Eight more are expected to earn the certificate by spring 2003, according to Snoke.

Joel Ayres, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, says he enrolled in the photonics program to indulge his fascination with lasers and cutting-edge technology. "This is where even the Internet is going, into the photonics field," he says. "I think photonics will be even more prevalent 20 or 30 years from now than it is today."

Arthur A. McClelland, a junior engineering physics major, says he believes the "photonics revolution has quietly taken over."

"Consider how many times a day you use photonics technology and don't even realize it," McClelland says. "Pick up your remote control and change the channel on your TV. What you are doing is sending an infrared signal to the TV to tell it to change the channel. Consider all of the fiber-optics that you use every day for telephone calls and Internet access. There are a number of medical applications where they stick a tiny camera inside you with fiber-optics. Parts on your car were probably laser-welded. You listen to CDs, watch DVDs.

"The point is that people are thinking up new ways to use light and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum every day, and there are very few programs [except Pitt's] that formally train people in photonics, especially at the bachelor's level."

Unlike some high-tech industries, photonics emerged from the tech-stocks crash in good shape, Snoke points out. "When a technology's time has come, it survives and thrives even in bad economic times. Even during the Great Depression, people were still installing telephones all over the country."

— Bruce Steele

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