#FacesofPhotonics: Optimax Director of Technology and Strategy, Jessica DeGroote Nelson

This SPIE Faces of Photonics interview features Jessica DeGroote Nelson, assistant professor at University of Rochester and director at Optimax Systems
10 September 2019
By Emily Power
Jessica DeGroote Nelson
POLISHED TO PERFECTION: DeGroote Nelson works in the optical manufacturing lab

SPIE Senior Member Jessica DeGroote Nelson works as the Director of Technology and Strategy at Optimax Systems in Ontario, New York. She also teaches as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at The Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester (UR), and is an active volunteer across multiple SPIE conferences. At Photonics West 2020, for example, Nelson will bring her knowledge of optical systems to San Francisco in the course, "Optical Materials, Fabrication, and Testing for the Optical Engineer". 

"This course is geared toward optical engineers who are hoping to learn the basics of how optics are made, and ways to help reduce the cost of the optics they are designing. To do so, they must understand why certain specifications are more costly than others. I teach this course to provide a few tools for the toolbelt of a new optical designer as they navigate tolerancing and purchasing their first designs," Nelson says. "I love learning about their different experiences; I learn something new every time I teach the course!"

While teaching and her work are two of her primary passions, Nelson adds, "My life would not be complete without my family: I am a wife to a wonderful husband, Phil, and mom to my two-year old daughter, Amelia!"

Enjoy SPIE's Faces of Photonics interview with Jessica.

DeGroote Nelson and her daughter

HANDS UP FOR OPTICS!: Nelson and Amelia pose for the camera

1. How did you become interested in the optics and photonics field? Was there a person who inspired you?

My first exposure to optics (that I remember) was building a flashlight with my grandfather in his workshop when I was about eight or nine years old. I did not know I wanted to do optics, but I did know that I enjoyed all of my STEM classes in grade school and high school. Going into college, I knew that I wanted to do something with STEM, but still did not know what that would be. 

During freshman orientation at UR, one of the advisors suggested I check out the Optics Department. I took Optics 100 from Turan Erdogan and was hooked! Throughout my time at The Institute of Optics at UR, I had many great professors and mentors. I started as an intern in Steve Jacobs's lab after my sophomore year, and I still love optics fabrication today.

2. Describe a memorable moment from an SPIE event or conference.

I still vividly remember my first oral presentation at an SPIE conference. It was the summer after my junior year at UR, and I was presenting on my research on optical polishing pitch. I applied and won an SPIE travel grant to travel to San Diego for the SPIE meeting. This meeting was my first SPIE conference, my first presentation, and I was scheduled to be the first presenter at 8 am on the first day. Even today, I still get butterflies remembering how nervous I was! 

Everything went very well, andI met several people at that meeting that have been influential to my career, including SPIE Past President Phil Stahl who was the conference chair that year.

3. Share the story of your favorite outreach or volunteer experience.

The Optics Suitcase is an educational outreach tool developed by Steve Jacobs and our local OSA chapter, OSA-Rochester Section. Polarization is one of the topics in the suitcase, and I had the opportunity to help give a presentation to a group of young girls interested in STEM. 

As part of this presentation I augmented the suitcase with a "secret code" nail polish, where I cut shapes out of clear tape and placed it on my fingernails painted with pink metallic fingernail polish. In ambient light, my fingernails looked pink; under a circular polarizer the girls could see the secret code from the birefringent tape. The look of amazement on their faces was awesome!

4. Explain your current research/what you do at your job. How does your work impact society?

At Optimax, I facilitate our continuous strategic-planning process which includes our technology and product road maps, and R&D projects. Our research is focused on manufacturing and testing methods for optical components. Recently we have been working on manufacturing high-precision freeform optics and optics for high-energy laser applications.

Freeform optics give optical designers more degrees of freedom when designing optical systems, which typically results in off-axis, more compact optical systems with equal or higher performance than traditional on-axis, spherical designs. Optics for high-energy laser applications must follow a strict process to survive either high peak power or continuous wave high energy laser applications.  These optics are used in many demanding high-energy laser applications.

UR alums turned Optimax employees

OPTIMAL COLLECTIVE: UR alums turned Optimax employees. L to R: Joseph Spilman, Steve Powers, Todd Blalock, Jessica DeGroote Nelson, Tim Lynch, Rick Plympton, and Jon Watson

5. What book has impacted your professional life the most? Your personal life? Why?

I love books! Reading about others' perspectives is really helpful for research and strategic planning.  There have been many books that have impacted my professional life, and I rarely read a book that I don't take a gem away from and apply it to my life. Two books that I reference the most are Optical Glass by T. Izumitani and The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation by Vijay Govindarajan.

Optical Glass is a fantastic reference book that combines the basics of glass science and glass melting along with optical fabrication methods and the theory behind it. Unfortunately, it has been out of print for many years and is difficult to find, but worth it when you do. 

The Three-Box Solution has challenged me to be excited about having a "healthy paranoia" when it comes to disruptive technologies that will change the way we think about technology innovation today. The mantra of the book is to manage the present, forget the past, and create the future. The challenge is finding the balance!

6. What are you most excited to see in the future development of photonics?

I am really excited about the rate of the innovation cycle in today's society. I think the speed of communication and access to more collaborations is driving this increased rate. The challenges that innovative ideas are providing to the optical materials and fabrication industry are fascinating to tackle, and I'm looking forward to seeing where our adventure takes us.  

7. What is your advice to others in the STEM community?

To keep up with the rapid innovation cycles of today, we need to make sure that the next generation is inspired to pursue STEM careers. Inspiration can come from anywhere, so don't be shy about sharing your passion!

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