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Optics & photonics Industry growing in upstate NY

The industry around the scientific fields of optics and photonics has a strong presence in upstate New York. Monroe County alone is home to around 50 companies working in the field that is behind things like lasers, smart phones, and the Internet.

It looks just like a small circular lens the size of a quarter, but it's made by a Rochester company called Optimax, and it has a twin on Mars. Most of the images we see sent back from the Mars Rover come through pieces of glass just like this.

Optimax is part of the burgeoning optics and photonics industry. Optics is the branch of physics which involves the behaviour and properties of light. Photonics is the design of systems like optical fibres, which rely on the transmission of streams of photons.

With Optimax's products reaching as far as outer space, this company exemplifies the industry's core message -- optics are ubiquitous..

Colin McKinstrie is a member of the Optical Society of America, and he says there's practically no part of our lives optics and photonics don't touch.

"Optical technology underpins a large fraction of the modern technological world. Everything from a barcode scanner at a supermarket, to a laser range finder which you can use to measure the distance to the moon, optical interconnects in computing, and of course the biggest thing of which everyone will have heard is the Internet, that's optical based," said McKinstrie.

Principal engineer and president of JK Consulting, Jennifer Kruschwitz, agrees. She also notes the pervasiveness of the industry extends to social issues, like gender equality.

Kruschwitz says when it comes to women in science, optics and photonics are setting precedents in science-based industries.

"I feel that optics is a very inviting discipline for both women and minorities," said Kruschwitz. "They're not only inviting to women in terms of publishing and sharing their research, but also for leadership positions."

Kruschwitz says involving girls and boys from a young age is the key to bringing innovation to these industries.

"I would love to see more young people get into the physical sciences, strictly because of the wonderful innovations that can come about in the next 10 to 15 years," she said. "And we just need young people to be excited about driving those innovations."

Steven Jacobs is a professor in the institute of optics and one of the creators of a portable kit of teaching resources called the optics suitcase.

"This is the first one we usually do in a student presentation in a classroom, and basically there's a clear plastic disc and a flashlight. So it's real simple, and if you hold the disk up to your eye and shine the flashlight in, you see color," said Jacobs.

Jacobs says the simple demonstrations in the case, like showing the rainbows created by refracted light, generate real enthusiasm in all students, regardless of gender.

"So here's this white light from a flashlight and you look through the disk and you see all the colors of the rainbow. So the first question for kids is where did the color come from? And if you're with fourth graders, they often point to the rainbow peep hole and say, 'well it comes from the peep hole.' Well, it doesn't come from the peep hole, it comes from the color that's in the white light."

But, Jacobs says keeping the kids interested in the large variety of jobs in the industry can be slightly harder.

"And they talk about the excitement in the demonstration, and they want to be engineers," he says. "Here's the trick though, the trick is to try to maintain that level of interest and excitement as they move through the schools."

Jacobs says in the current job climate, optics is definitely a field with potential for graduates.

Professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, and Optical Society member Alan Willner says there is strong potential for job growth in the industry, but he believes a national initiative is crucial to keeping it that way.

"We need to look into the future. We have played a leadership role in the past, but our leadership role is far from secure as you look into the future."

Willner says it's critical for the U.S. to remain a leader in an industry when other countries like Germany, are investing heavily.

He says he doesn't know exactly what the next big step for optics is, but he's certain of one thing -- the industry is going to continue to underpin almost everything in our lives.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail