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CREOL’s LaserFest – Bringing the celebration of lasers to the southeast region

By Apurva Jain

With great knowledge comes great responsibility. As scientists, it is our responsibility to effectively and efficiently share the knowledge we acquire. We express this in forms ranging from patents and publications to teaching and outreach. While CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida (UCF), has pursued patents and publications, CREOL’s students have always been involved in extracurricular education and outreach. This spring (April 2nd - 4th 2010), the CREOL Association of Optics Students (CAOS) and the SPIE student chapter at UCF came together to host the three day event, CREOL LaserFest. In addition to celebrating the 50th anniversary of lasers, the purpose was twofold - to educate local K-12 students on optics and lasers; and to foster networking and research connections with students in related graduate programs in the southeast region.

Day one of the event was the Optics Day, a CREOL open house. Hosted by CAOS since 2002, Optics Day is targeted to a general audience of local students, parents, and educators with limited understanding of optics and lasers. With the help of about twenty student volunteers, we explained demonstrations showcasing general concepts of optics and lasers to over 200 guests. Visitors included K-12 students and teachers from three Florida counties as well as undergraduate and graduate students from various departments across UCF. These demonstrations included introductions to interference, polarization, holography, semiconductor optics, fiber optics, and most importantly, lasers and laser physics in its various forms. The Vice President of Research and Technology at Ocean Optics and a CREOL alumnus, Dr. Jason Eichenholtz, enlightened the diverse audience about how photonics technologies have penetrated our society and are being used to make world a better place. Guests were offered further in-depth discussions on specific topics through the CREOL laboratory tours.

Day two of CREOL’s LaserFest was the SPIE Symposium, hosted by the UCF SPIE student chapter in collaboration with CAOS and the UNCC SPIE student chapter. The symposium was targeted to senior undergraduate and graduate students in fields related to optics, and invitations were sent to the physics and electrical engineering departments of many major universities in the southeast US region. With the goal of stimulating discussions on laser technologies and future applications, the event comprised of invited talks on various aspects of laser by established professionals and researchers followed by a panel discussion.

Dr. Michael Bass, Emeritus Professor at CREOL, started with a very engaging presentation on the key events that revolutionized the laser industry and brought lasers into the commercial market. Dr. Martin Stickley, special consultant to CREOL and the scientist who built the Air Force’s first laser in 1960, discussed his involvement in the history of lasers and elaborated on the current barriers and future requirements for high power laser sources. Dr. Alex Vitkin, Professor of Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto, shared insights on recent advances in clinical science made possible by optics and laser technologies such as early diagnosis and treatment of diseases via specific high resolution biological imaging techniques. Mr. Amit Jain, President, CEO, and founder of Prysm Inc., motivated the audience through his entrepreneurial success stories over the last two decades in laser-enabled industries like optical data storage, telecommunications, and his most current venture of laser phosphor display (LPD) technology.

The panel discussion that followed the laser session was the highlight of the day, and saw a lot of enthusiasm from both the students and the speakers. Topics discussed included the future of lasers, the cultivation of ideas from conception to execution, interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to problem solving, and to career counseling. A professional development seminar on the importance of communication, a poster session, and CREOL lab tours followed. The event, funded by the collaborative conference grant from SPIE, had 55 participants with about 40% coming from outside CREOL and about one-fifth representation by undergraduate students. Travel grants were provided to all students travelling from outside Orlando. A social networking activity at Kennedy Space Center was organized for the participants on the final day of the event.

The three-day event brought young minds from K-12 schools, prospective engineers and scientists from undergraduate level, and dedicated optics graduate students under one roof to celebrate optics and lasers. The event successfully combined outreach, technical discussions, and professional development into a single program that benefitted participants of all age groups and academic backgrounds. Over the course of the event, discussions evolved from technical aspects of laser physics and applications into a discussion about the nature of multidisciplinary collaboration to provide next-generation solutions. The strong interest in collaborative research, driven in large part by the undergraduate research community, has inspired us to target a broader multidisciplinary audience in technical discussions in the future.

More information on CREOL’s LaserFest can be found here.