A clear vision
Quazi Rushnan Islam’s enthusiasm — for optics, for her research, for proactive participation in the science community — is infectious. “For my research, I have two things that I look for,” says Islam, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics whose work focuses on improving contact lenses. “One is, is it going to be intellectually challenging? And this definitely is, because I have to understand the biological aspect — I’m putting something on your eye! — while also trying to apply changes to contact-lens material under all these different conditions. So that’s both intellectually challenging and interdisciplinary. It’s also great that hey, my work will actually help people see better.” In other words, interesting enough to keep her awake while also benefiting others. And vision science, Islam points out, is something people can relate to: “The health of your eyesight, it’s just so fundamental.”
The reason why anyone has problems with eyesight, is because light is not falling on the retina correctly; corrective lenses — like any standard optical system — address this by refocusing light rays. “What we try to do is address how to focus light correctly on your retina by changing the contact-lens material itself, rather than just shaping the lens externally; we’re trying to change the refractive index of the material so that it can correct your individual vision on a more granular level.” This particularly impacts multifocal lenses whose complex shapes of Fresnel patterns cause more frequent blinking and whose edges therefore attract more protein deposits.
“It’s like when you have a serrated knife with all these edges and you use it with butter, and you have all this butter stuck to the edges,” she explains. “What I want to do is give you a nice, smooth contact lens that fits nicely onto your eye, without the weird shape and edges. And I want to do that by changing the material properties inside that lens which will have the same effect on focusing light as the Fresnel shape does, but where you can see something far and something near because of the refractive corrector patterned into the material. I do that using lasers to change the properties within the material, so you don't have to worry about the blinking and the protein deposits.” While the technology of making Fresnel patterns in the material has already been achieved, Islam’s research focuses on how to integrate this technology into the manufacturing line to mass-produce better contact lenses. “The conditions under which such patterning has to be implemented are challenging,” notes Islam. “But that just makes the problem intricate — and interesting.”
As the inaugural recipient of the $1-million endowed SPIE Graduate Fellowship in Optical Sciences and Engineering, established in 2022 by SPIE and the University of Rochester as part of the SPIE Endowment Matching Program, Islam is currently benefiting from funding that covers her research. But the fellowship, she says, isn’t just a critical milestone in terms of financial support — it’s having an impact on a personal level as well. “A PhD is long,” says Islam. “It's a marathon. I know I'm doing great work, and I know it's going to help people one day, but sometimes having that external validation really helps. Part of SPIE’s vision is to empower students — people like me — who want to learn more about optics. That aspect resonates with what I'm trying to do with science, that I’m trying to learn more about optics. As an optical engineer, I feel we help scientists do better science, whether it's probing something, whether it's detecting something. Being funded by an organization like SPIE, one that has been supporting optics research and outreach for so long, is just a win-win in every direction: it helps me stay grounded as I work on my PhD, and having that name behind me is telling people that this research is important.”
Islam is already paying that support forward as part of a collaborative outreach-focused environment. “In my university peer group, it doesn't matter where you're from — the language we speak is optics and photonics,” she says. One day, they were trying to come up with fun activities for visiting high-school students — “I just wanted them to know that there’s something fun called optics” — brainstorming ideas such as ‘What is light?’ ‘What is manipulation?’ ‘How do we make these kids understand our field better?’ ‘How do we share the passion we have instead of using these dense equations?’ “I was just having fun trying to condense very difficult concepts into a high-school level concepts, and that excitement generated by that conversation was contagious,” an excitement she also captures by participating in the University of Rochester’s SPIE Student Chapter and helping to drive its activities first as the communication officer and now as chapter secretary.
It's not Islam’s first engagement with science outreach and communication — in 2021, she moderated sessions with both Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings — and, a few years before that, she participated for three summers in the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization’s Student Small Satellite project. But that element of camaraderie and community engagement that has led to Islam creating opportunities for others has a clear model in the way early mentors supported her. Like that time she took on a life-changing project as an undergrad at the University of Dhaka to work remotely and collaboratively with students at the University of Southampton on a solar-cell project. One of her university advisors came to her with a potential opportunity: students at the University of Southampton were texturing the surface of solar cells to make them more efficient, so that they would capture more light. “Would you like to model those structures?” he asked Islam.
It wasn't exactly experimental optics, she says now, but it offered Islam the opportunity of seeing what participating in interdisciplinary research was like. “So I started talking to the University of Southampton students, and they’re like, ‘Hey, can you model this so that we know optically how to use it?’ I got to see things that I was modeling, right at that moment, and that was exciting; I wasn't the laser operator, but I was contributing to solar-cell technology in a way that was helping other scientists.” One night, she had a eureka moment: “It just hit me,” says Islam. “That if something is this interesting on a simulation level, I am ready to get into this field.”
Five years on from that transformative moment, one aspect of optics that Islam particularly appreciates is the extensive range of applications that the field encompasses, from high-speed internet systems to non-invasive medical diagnostics. Every lab at the Institute of Optics is exploring a distinct facet of the field, she notes: “Initially, I was drawn by my passion for solar cells and their potential to revolutionize renewable energy, but I was pleasantly surprised by the remarkable diversity within optics when I joined the graduate program here.”
Already set for her next adventure, later this summer, Islam will be heading to SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego where she’ll be presenting aspects of her work. “It's going to be my first conference and my first presentation,” she says. “So it's a real milestone.” And one she’ll be heading into with eyes wide open.
|Enjoy this article?
Get similar news in your inbox