Light and Opportunity in the Southwest: My Experience with the Hooked on Photonics REU at UA

I believe that our interactions with light are amongst some of the most powerful and memorable experiences that one can have. Even our subtle interactions with light outside of the lab can have an extremely profound effect on the way we think and perceive the world. One of the most profound ways that light permeates our everyday language is in our use of light as a metaphor to clarify a concept. Words such as illuminate, illustrate, and enlighten make sense to us because of our everyday experience with light from childhood. When a new explanation of some phenomena comes to our attention, we may say that some light has been shed on the subject. In the lab, the interaction between light and matter can provide us with a great amount of information about the characteristics of our universe and applications for new types of technology. In the laboratory, we are put into a unique situation. Not only is light used to reveal the properties of materials and objects around us, but also the concept and properties of light itself are revealed or even can be said to be illuminated.

College of Opt Sci Sculpture

Mirror Glass Sculpture Outside College of Optical Sciences

I started optical science research in my junior year of college. When I found out that I had been accepted as a participant in the Hooked on Photonics REU program at UA, I was very excited. The furthest west I had ever traveled in the United States was Illinois, so the REU seemed like a perfect opportunity for the summer. UA has a historically strong program for optics, so I was looking forward to being part of such an immersive optics experience. After the program, I remember reading through the October issue of the OSA publication Optics and Photonics News and coming across the feature article on the 50th Anniversary of the College of Optical Sciences at UA written by Dean Thomas Koch. His description of the Arizona sky and the “blue-sky thinking” that characterizes the institution and its hosted programs completely reflects my memory of my summer experience.


“Desert Flower,” 1996, optical glass sculpture, Christopher Ries. Sculpture on 3rd Floor of College of Optical Sciences

My program would be involved with the Center for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN), which is a multi-institutional research initiative led at UA. The goal for CIAN is to create and develop faster, more efficient optical communication networks and new types of optoelectronic devices that can be implemented in these networks. My primary mentor for the summer was Professor Pierre-Alexandre Blanche, and I would be working in the Holography Lab. I remember on the first day I was introduced to Professor Blanche, he gave us a demonstration of the 3D refreshable holographic display. We walked around the front of the Holography lab and kept our eyes on the image of a skull on the display at the back of the room. As we changed our position, the perspective of the skull shifted as if the object was really in the room. The presentation was not only visually powerful, but also demonstrated the power of optics and photonics in bringing devices previously only dreamed of into the real world.

DMD pic for Blog

Digital Micromirror Device used in Optical Switch to Display Holographic Patterns

The project I was assigned was to help conduct the preliminary implementation of a new type of highly scalable optical switch. Optical switches redirect light within a fiber optic network. Current switches redirect light by mechanically moving mirrors to reflect light to a designated output. The optical switch design being researched at the holography lab would be much faster at redirecting light and dealing with changing bandwidth demands than current technology. This would be achieved by employing an array of bi-stable micromirrors as a diffractive element to redirect light, rather than by using a reflective element. Computer generated holographic patterns were displayed on the array of micromirrors, so that the array could be employed as a diffractive element. The operation of the switch was characterized in terms of switching speed and different types of signal loss.


Fourier Lens and Output Array of Optical Switch

Over the course of the program we were given different types of training in addition to our research projects to prepare us for taking the next step towards our academic careers. We were offered GRE prep courses, colloquiums on how to apply for grad school, and presentation skills workshops. These resources were definitely very important to our academic development, but I believe that another defining quality of my summer experience was having the opportunity to meet my fellow REU students. There were two programs at UA that were involved with the CIAN faculty; they were the Hooked on Photonics program and Integrated Optics for Undergraduates-Native Americans. Other REU programs were also held at Arizona, but the HoP program and IOU-NA were very closely linked. This was not only because we went to the same formal events together, but also because we spent a majority of our time together. The program hosted trips to a bunch of locations such as the Sonora Desert Museum, Kitt Peak National Observatory, and the Biosphere 2. Many of us took trips on weekends to places around Tucson, such as Saguaro National Park and Catalina State Park. A few of us even went to see the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe bend in Northern Arizona. I remember being in Saguaro National Park and watching a curtain of rain gently sweep a mountain. We had pulled to the side of the road and gotten out of the car. It was close to sundown and the sun shone down through a part in the clouds. A few broad rays of light struck the sides of the mountain, while a large cloud past overhead. After the cloud had passed, the droplets had ceased and a patch of deep blue filled in the space where the cloud had previously been.


View of Saguaro National Park

On the weekend nights, we explored the city, went to the movies, saw concerts at Hotel Congress and the Rialto Theater, and visited coffee shops. Between our two REU programs we were from pretty much all different parts of the United States. We had students from places such as the Navajo Nation, Hawaii, New York and California. I think altogether we had people from every time zone in the United States. It was interesting to hear about everyone’s backstory and how we had found our way to Arizona for the summer.

The future is definitely brighter after my research experience with the CIAN faculty at UA. I was able to learn about the role photonics plays in shaping our future communication networks and be in a community with great faculty and motivated peers. The REU coordinators at CIAN definitely tried their best to make the experience as memorable and rewarding for the participants as possible. I would recommend the program to any undergraduate, who is interested in participating and developing skills for a science-based career in a positive and engaging environment.


Picture from One of the Weekend Trips


Brandon O’Shea is a senior at Stony Brook University majoring in Physics and Mathematics. He was born and raised in Ozone Park, New York. Brandon is currently interested in pursuing a career in optics. Fields in optics he is interested in exploring include nonlinear optics, quantum optics, and holography. Brandon participated in the Hooked On Photonics REU program at the University of Arizona in Summer 2014.

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