Optical Science and Engineering Program Introduced

by Kathy Hedges

SOCORRO, N.M., Dec. 5, 2003 -- Few subjects animate Scott Teare more than New Mexico Tech's new program in optical science and engineering.

"Almost all modern technology involves optics -- optical communication, lasers, optical isolators, imaging systems, fiber optics, etc. Offering Tech students the opportunity to learn about optical science and engineering first-hand is incredibly useful to them," Teare says.

"In particular," he continues, "with Tech developing the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO), having an optics program available is key for our students. As well, a more diverse education puts them in a better position when applying for jobs after completing their studies."

Teare reports that Tech is starting off the optics program conservatively, offering a minor right now, but looking forward to expanding the program to offer a full bachelor's and graduate degrees in optics. Some expansion is already underway; Dr. Hai Xiao, a researcher in optical sensors and communications, joined the Electrical Engineering Department this fall which will certainly go far in supporting these efforts. Tech's first student with a minor in optical science and engineering will graduate in December 2003.

Teare, an associate professor of electrical engineering, became heavily involved in optics through his NSF-funded adaptive optics project at the Mount Wilson Observatory, located outside Pasadena, Calif. He and Laird Thompson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are co-investigators on the project and have been working to integrate the 100-inch telescope with the electrical control and electro-optical components of the laser guidestar adaptive optics system and apply it to astronomical pursuits.

Teare explains that, "My research interests revolve around ‘engineering light’, and electro-optical tools are a great way to do the job. So for me the connection between optics and electrical engineering is quite strong. What is particularly exciting about this field of ‘experimental adaptive optics’ is that it has applications in many areas including astronomy, industry, medicine and the Department of Defense."

One of the opportunities that has supported the development of the optics program at Tech is the Educational Partnership Agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Albuquerque. Through this agreement, Tech has received surplus optical fabrication, coating and support equipment for our school. In addition, it has brought Tech students to the attention of AFRL scientists and engineers. Over the past couple of years, the burgeoning optics academic program has placed four students into summer internships with DoD. Now two students from the optics program have joined the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) group that works out of AFRL for their master's degree work.

The optics program exists as its own separate program at New Mexico Tech, with professors from the departments of Electrical Engineering, Physics, and Materials Engineering serving on its advisory board. According to Teare, students in any of those majors, and indeed, any physical science students, should find the optics minor will complement their program.

"In addition to the academic program," Teare adds, "there is also an optical fabrication side to Tech’s interests. Tech’s Research and Economic Development Division’s Optical Surface Facility (OSF) is located near the ‘Big-I’ in Albuquerque and provides a unique opportunity for students to learn from masters of the craft of making optics. This is a full-service, custom optics manufacturing facility that specializes in providing customers with solutions to challenging optical needs. Eventually, we will have students using the OSF as a major part of their degree program and that is really exciting!"

The proximity of MRO is also key for the success of the optics program. MRO, a major astronomical instrument now in its development stages, makes New Mexico Tech a prime territory for research in adaptive optics, interferometry, wavefront propagation, atmospheric turbulence, polarimetry and applications to directed energy, astronomy and communications. MRO will eventually support a large optical interferometer and a 2.4m single telescope and is being developed by a consortium which includes New Mexico Tech, University of Cambridge, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, the University of Puerto Rico, Los Alamos National Labs, and the Naval Research Labs. On campus, the Etscorn Observatory provides optics students with access to commercial telescopes with imaging cameras and spectrometers.

As for the first graduate of the Optical Science and Engineering program, Jonathan R. Andrews, Teare says, "He is planning to stay here at Tech as a student in our newly approved Electrical Engineering Master of Science program. His work is being supported by the Naval Research Laboratory, where he will be working with Dr. Sergio Restaino, one of their senior optical researchers and me. It's a win-win situation for both Tech and NRL."