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OSA Fellow and 2010 President James C. Wyant, founding dean of the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences (OSC), has given OSC a US$20 million gift to endow 10 new chairs in optical science. He is shown here speaking at the event announcing the gift. [Image: University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences]

On 30 November, the University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences (OSC) announced that it had received a US$20 million pledge from the college’s founding dean, OSA Fellow and 2010 OSA president James C. Wyant, to support 10 new endowed faculty positions. The move represented the largest single gift for endowed faculty chairs in the university’s history, and comes on the heels of another, US$10 million gift from Wyant in 2013 to fund graduate student scholarships.

OSC’s current dean, Thomas Koch—an OSA Fellow, and a recently inducted Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors—called the gift “an incredible, enabling moment for the College of Optical Sciences, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to advance the rapidly expanding ways that optics and photonics can improve our lives.” OPN caught up with Koch to find out a bit more about that opportunity, and the kinds of changes it might bring.

I’m trying to get a bit more of a flavor of how big an impact this gift will have on OSC. Could you talk about the impact of these 10 new endowed chairs, relative to the existing faculty size?

Thomas Koch: We can measure our faculty size in all kinds of ways—we have tenure-track faculty, and research faculty supported entirely by research contracts, and joint appointments with other colleges or departments at the university. So naming a hard number can be difficult. But if we try to count just the current tenure or tenure-track faulty, either fully in OSC or split, it’s about 34 right now.

Nominally, the gift from Jim enables 10 endowed chairs, with an endowment of US$2 million each. So, just taking that at face value and assuming 34 current faculty, it’s an increase of nearly 30 percent.

But there’s another generous option embedded in the gift, the naming option. If somebody gets enthused and comes along and says, “I would love the opportunity to have an endowed chair named after someone”—perhaps themselves, or perhaps a mentor or someone they want to honor—they can get a US$2 million chair, with a US$500,000 contribution coming from them and US$1.5 million from the US$20 million Wyant endowment transferred into their chair.

Why do this? Well, the idea behind it is if we had, say, four people or groups come forward to do that, that’s the equivalent of another US$2 million in new contributions, at US$500,000 each, so that’s enough to create a new chair. So rather than 10, now we have 11, and so on. And we think that through this option, we may end up with as many as 13 new chairs if we can get enough additional people to step forward and make that kind of contribution.

That kind of addition must come with challenges for the college, too.

Koch: Sure. When you think what that could do to the college, the whole concept behind it is, how do we scale the college? Most, though not all, of the research faculty are affiliated with a tenured faculty member as kind of a group leader. But if we were to scale the college, we would anticipate scaling everything; we would end up with more research faculty, more students, and would, of course, then also have to hire more staff and administrators to support the faculty and students.

So it really is a scaling question. And one of the great things about working with Jim Wyant on this is that Jim used to be the dean of OSC, so he understands the nuts and bolts of how it works. It was wonderful working with him to develop these concepts about how to scale the college.

You’ve talked about this new gift as having a “transformative impact” on OSC. What will that consist of? Can you talk about the research and educational focus that you’re going to be emphasizing through this program?

Koch: Right now, the applications of optics are exploding. New market segments and new parts of our economy are “discovering” optics—realizing that their value and their future is reliant upon integrating optical capabilities and optics technologies into their products and roadmaps. And there’s still amazing breakthroughs happening in the fundamental areas of optical physics.

And an institution like ours might decide, well, we can’t do it all; it would be nice if we could do these other things, but we just can’t afford it, because we don’t have enough faculty. So a big part of this new gift is being able to step up and squarely address the increased scope of what optics and photonics is.

And that increased scope, I guess, involves a closer look at what industry is doing.

Koch: Yes. One of the things we kind of pride ourselves on here at OSC is that we have very good coupling with industry—good, substantive engagements with private-sector partners, in addition to the academic community, that bring bread and butter to the table of our faculty and students. But they also bring incredibly exciting intellectual input.

A lot of people have in their heads the idea that universities create students, and they create new technologies, and then maybe they license the technologies with patents to companies. But that picture of a one-way flow of knowledge goods coming from the university misses the reality of it—which is that it’s very much a two-way thing. When we have these industry engagements, our partners bring really exciting new thoughts and opportunities for products and capabilities. It’s incredibly stimulating, and it leads to new research and new directions. So it’s really a two-way intellectual exchange.

So what sort of things is that intellectual partnership going to enable in the future?

Koch: Well, right now we’re already seeing new players come into the field. A lot of what we formerly just thought of as “I.T. companies”—the Googles and the Microsofts and the Facebooks of the world, and many others—are getting very interested in optics technologies. The biomedical community is continuing to invest in new capabilities there.

Then there’s the current and future proliferation of autonomous systems—we always immediately will think of a driverless car, but that’s just one narrow example. More broadly, to the extent that there are and will be more “smart” systems in our world, how do they interact with the world? They’re going to be doing it through some kind of vision systems and telemetry, or just acquiring information about their surroundings and even acquiring information about you.

When you engage them, how do these smart systems understand you, know what you’re doing, saying, what your gesture is, what your expression is? The same way a human interacts with another human—these systems have to develop that kind of intelligence. And all of that involves optics, and it’s very exciting.

So those are some examples. I think the future is coming at us at 100 miles an hour, and we’d love to be able to step up with new faculty that can work in partnerships with both the conventional federal and research agencies, but also very strongly linking to private-sector partners. The new funding for these positions gives us the fuel to make good on that—to go out and invest in new areas.

A lot of what your describing also feeds into vision of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”—which, I believe, is something the president of the University of Arizona, Robert Robbins, is emphasizing as a strategic theme.

Koch: Yes. I’m not an expert on the overall vision of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but at one level it involves the convergence of the physical sciences, digital technologies, and medical technologies. How do these major advances of the prior century converge to deliver something even bigger and more impactful than any one of them by itself?

For us, an underlying thread of that is the pervasive influence of artificial intelligence and powerful digital intelligence capabilities, communication capabilities, mobile processing capabilities. When we think about how those impact some of our daily lives—or even, let’s say, a surgeon in the middle of an operation—many of the manifestations of this convergence will probably be linked into optics in one way or another.

We’re excited by that, because one of the things that we’ve learned from our existing research in the areas we call image science is that, sometimes, the best answer is not separately optimizing an imaging acquisition system, and then taking the data somewhere else and crunching it. Instead, you can often do much better if you’re engineering this thing end-to-end, with the algorithms and the hardware design optimized together, rather than separately in a chain.

Expanding the picture in this way involves autonomous systems interacting with humans, and it involves artificial intelligence, and it involves massive use of digital technologies in the cloud, and it involves hardware design of optical information acquisitions—whether that’s an image or telemetry or whatever. It’s the really complicated problem of, how do you know you got the best answer? And for us, it means kind of jumping in and saying, wow, we’re going to collaborate with those communities to try to come up with really novel, high-performance solutions that integrate optics—but maybe in new ways that people didn’t think about before.

Putting people from different areas together in this way can be quite challenging, though. How will you accomplish that?

Koch: Well, the university is making some investments precisely to grow efforts in those areas. Frankly, one of the things we’re most constrained in right now is space—we’ve got 160,000 square feet of buildings, but we need more. So another exciting thing is that there will be a new, US$150 million facility, constructed right next to the OSC building, that will include not just optical-science people, but also people from other disciplines working on some of the things that I was just alluding to.

The university has also taken the bold step of creating a whole new college—the College of Data Computing and Network Science—and portions of that effort may be housed in this building. It’s about many of the things that I’ve been talking about. It’s cloud-based and even point-based artificial-intelligence capabilities, and how do we link those capabilities into applications, and what are the implications for network capability architecture, hardware, software.

So this will be a sort of interdisciplinary research center?

Koch: Very much so. Even the working title of the building project today points to that—the “Grand Challenges Research Building.”

We’ve talked a bit about the kinds of areas and technologies, and collaborative, interdisciplinary research that the gift from James Wyant and the new college will enable. What about the “people” side of things?

Koch: One thing that is really, really important here is that, in the end, it’s really all about students. We’re not a research center somewhere just doing research projects; we’re training students, educating undergrads and especially grad students. All of these opportunities and new areas that we’re wanting to get into are really all about preparing a generation of students that can lead and be confident in these new emerging areas.

There are some schools that are specialized in robotics; others that are specialized in artificial intelligence; others, like us, that are specialized in optics, and so forth. But students who can work in that environment and stitch it all together in creative ways are going to be just super-valuable, and really highly sought after. So when the University of Arizona president is excited about doing this stuff, it’s not just because of a desire to put a flag in the ground and talk about research. It’s the desire to create the talent and make the investment so we can deliver the goods for a new generation of students.

So, thinking about the positive impact of this gift—of course we will see papers in journals, and we will see presentations at conferences, and we’ll see exciting research contracts with companies and patents and new products. But in the end we’re a university, and our most important value is in the human capital. So yes—we’re really excited about positioning ourselves so that we can do a good job at creating the talent that society needs to really run with these new technologies.

Let’s wrap up by talking about some of the nuts and bolts of implementation. Based on your own administrative experience, how rapidly are you expecting this expansion to take place? Are we talking about months, years or what?

Koch: Jim Wyant, of course, was once the dean of this school. So, as I mentioned earlier, he really understands how things work. And we mutually decided that the best pacing for this is really limited by our capacity to identify and hire the best talent.

If we just said, all right, tomorrow we’re going to hire all these folks, we’d probably be pretty sloppy about it. In our system especially, everybody we hire really has to be both research active in a big way, and really committed to teaching. So we need to find stars—whether from other universities, new folks coming into the academic world, or people from government or the private sector who want to move into academia. Otherwise the finances don’t really work for us either.

Finding those people is hard, and we think the best we can probably do is about two per year. So we’re looking at roughly a five-year span for filling these ten new positions. That’s just being realistic about our ability to hire people. Coincidentally, that meshes with the construction of the new building—we couldn’t hire everyone at once anyway, because we will need more space.

You talked a little bit about Jim Wyant, and the advantage that, as a former dean, he was so familiar with the lay of the land. More generally, can you talk a bit about his ties to the university and what they’ve meant?

Koch: I feel that with Jim and OSC, it’s not just about the brick and mortar. He’s an incredible believer in the mission and the concept behind this college. He’s really devoted his life to it, I would say. Yes, he stepped away and he has had some very exciting and successful times in the companies that he co-founded or founded. Now he’s pouring major portions of the fruits of his private sector work right back into the thing that he loves.

He’s incredibly personally committed to the students and the mission of college and the faculty of the college. And he’s committed to the success of this whole concept of training students, cutting-edge research, working with the private sector—all of the things we’ve been talking about. Jim is an amazing person, and OSC has been really fortunate to have him as a leader in many capacities – as a faculty member, as a dean, and as friend and philanthropic supporter. I can’t imagine a more extraordinary personal commitment, and generosity.