UR’s Institute of Optics receives $12M challenge fund

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University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics has a chance to boost its influence and increase its faculty by 50 percent as it enters its second century. The opportunity comes via a $12 million challenge fund, the largest gift in the institute’s history.

The 10-year challenge is endowed by UR life trustee James Wyant and his wife, Tammy, who will provide 60 percent of the $1.5 million required for a professorship and $2 million necessary for a distinguished professorship, officials say.

The first distinguished professorship notes the institute’s well-known alumnus and Nobel Prize winner, Donna Strickland. Optica, a professional society of individuals and companies with an interest in optics and photonics, has gifted $800,000, which will be matched with $1.2 million by the Wyant Challenge.  

James and Tammy Wyant
(Photo: UR)

“Tammy and I made this gift to increase opportunities for world-class training and research in optics,” Wyant says. “Optics is a technology-enabler and a huge part of daily life, yet there are few universities in the world that have a comprehensive educational and research program in optics. The Institute of Optics, where I went to graduate school, is one place where you can get a well-rounded education in optics, and the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, where I spent a large part of my career, is another.” 

The fund aims to create 10 endowed professorships—five distinguished professorships for renowned faculty and five professorships for early-career faculty with expertise in laser science, integrated photonics and quantum optics. The additions will grow the ranks of full-time faculty to 30 people. The institute currently has 20 full-time faculty members. A visiting professorship and staff position will also be endowed.  

The new faculty will have primary appointments in optics and secondary positions across UR, including the Medical Center and at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. The expansion is designed to meet increasing demand for optics graduates here and nationwide. The increases are expected to occur by the institute’s 100-year anniversary celebration in 2029.

 “Jim’s and Tammy’s generosity is truly transformational,” says Sarah Mangelsdorf, UR president and G. Robert Witmer, Jr. University Professor. “Their vision and partnership will help the University recruit leading scholars in optics and photonics in an increasingly competitive environment. It will dramatically impact how our Institute of Optics educates and trains the next generation of researchers and leaders. The fact that Optica has already come on board is a testament to the important work being done here.” 

Wyant, who has been a visiting professor at the institute since 1983, is one of several institute graduates who helped establish and grow the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. He is the founding dean of that institution’s College of Optical Sciences, which now bears his name.

The nation’s oldest school of optics, UR’s institute has awarded roughly half of all optics degrees in the United States, officials say. The institute has a current enrollment of more than 300 students and has awarded nearly 3,000 degrees.

“One of our big challenges, and it’s an exciting challenge, is that the international scope and size of the field of optics is growing,” says Thomas Brown, director of the Institute of Optics.

Employers are looking for trained optics graduates which has led to the expansion of such programs. China has stepped up its game in the last few decades, Brown notes, and now rivals U.S. preeminence in a field considered vital to the nation’s defense, economy and technology.  

The Wyant gift will help the institute keep pace with the competition, and “continue to contribute as we have in the past, in both research and education, to the advancement of the field of optics,” Brown says. 

More faculty will help the institute to train more undergraduate and graduate students, addressing needs of the workforce in Rochester and the nation. 

Brown’s vision for the institute played a key role in the gifting process, observes Wendi Heinzelman, dean of UR’s Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Wyants’ gift also makes it easier for others who are considering a large donation.

“Because of (the Wyants’) generosity, the Institute of Optics will play a key role advancing the field of optics—now and into the future,” Heinzelman says.  

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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