Of math, mentoring, and a photonics-focused career

Soileau Family-SPIE Optics and Photonics Undergraduate Scholarship recipient Kaila Peeples thrives on her biomedical-optics ambitions and mentorship activities
23 May 2024
Daneet Steffens
Image of four women from International Women's Day WiLO event at CREOL in 2024.
Peeples, second from right, with colleagues at the International Women's Day event held by WiLO at CREOL on 8 March 2024.

A career in optics and photonics was not a given for Kaila Peeples until just a few years ago. The first in her family to attend college — let alone show any interest in STEM-related studies — the University of Central Florida (UCF) student had attended an arts-focused school, playing the bassoon and considering a career in marketing or something “more artsy.”

Then, a class with Peeples’ 11th-grade calculus teacher Kinsey Gulamali — “the best math teacher ever”— generated a personal paradigm shift. “She completely changed my mind about math,” says Peeples. “I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I can do something a little more STEM-related.’ She considered computer engineering, which could lead to a career in film visual effects, but once she arrived at UCF’s College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL), Peeples’ thinking changed again. “I found out about photonics through an introduction to engineering class with Mike McKee, our advisor. He gave an amazing speech on photonics, and I was completely blown away.” Her practicality kicked in, however, so she took a few months to explore her options: “I had no idea what photonics was, so I researched it and then I was like, ‘Okay, this is for me, for sure. STEM all the way down.’”

In her sophomore year, 2022-2023, Peeples was a recipient of a Soileau Family-SPIE Optics and Photonics Undergraduate Scholarship. Established in 2020 as part of the SPIE Endowment Matching Program, the scholarship stipulates preference for students who are the first in their families to attend college. For Peeples, whose tuition is covered by Florida’s Bright Futures Program, the scholarship provided welcome support, covering her on-campus housing that year.

“It’s an honor to get a scholarship related to photonics from SPIE,” says Peeples. “Receiving it gave me pride in myself and made me realize what an amazing community we have. It inspired me in many ways and pushed me to want to do more within photonics.”

That new-found pride in community led to a serious escalation in her STEM-related activities: “I started doing a lot more. I wanted to just be shown more and showcase more and tell more people about photonics.”

Happily, multiple UCF and CREOL programs allowed her to do just that. In her freshman year, Peeples had participated in the university’s EXCEL program which focuses on ensuring new students’ success in their STEM classes. Then, Peeples got involved in GEMS — Girls Excelling in Math and Science. That program “was very influential for me,” she says. “I loved meeting other women in STEM and it was such an amazing experience that I became a mentor within GEMS for a couple of years.” Through GEMS, she discovered CREOL’s WiLO, the Organization of Women in Lasers and Optics — SPIE Fellow and CREOL professor Kathleen Richardson is its faculty advisor — and that experience confirmed Peeples’ growing interest in mentoring others. “I wanted to be a part of that, to continue interacting with and supporting other women in STEM. I come from a family full of women, and I know that my experience is something that other students can relate to. Extending a helping hand and being a support system to other people, that’s really important to me.”

In the same vein, Peeples belongs to Alpha Sigma Kappa, a sorority for women and non-binary people in STEM, and has recently become their new-member educator, “so I’m helping people transition into their new environment. I love that role.”

Currently winding up her recent term as WiLO’s secretary, and pursuing an internship at Lockheed Martin as a research engineer, the rising senior envisions a career in biophotonics or biomedical optics. “Mike talked about how photonics can be used within the medical field,” she explains. “Ever since I was younger, I always thought medicine was very interesting. Hearing that I can do something that can help advance the medical field — helping people that way — that really blew my mind.” Ever-practical, Peeples is keeping her options open: “There are quite a few medical-system companies near here,” she says, “but I’ve also thought about going to graduate school.”

What she is decidedly clear on, is pursuing her mentoring work as her own technical career develops — and it’s a vision that dovetails winningly with that of MJ Soileau, a fellow first-generation student, UCF emeritus professor, and part sponsor of the Soileau Family-SPIE scholarship that Peeples received.  “Being able to support other students has been an amazing thing,” says Peeples. “But I am also excited for when I actually grow in my career, to come back and do even more, to mentor students who will be coming up behind me. I want to stay in contact with GEMS, to come back and work with CREOL. Anything I can do to help the photonics community, I would love to do that.”



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