Montana State University
TitleSeeding the MSU Optics Graduate Program with academic stars Request Date2012-11-30
DepartmentOptical Technology Center (OpTeC)
RequestorJoseph Shaw Phone406-994-7261
Campuses Bozeman Billings Havre Great Falls FSTS Extension MAES
Cross Depts Electrical and Computer Engineering, Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry
Proposed Dates Start: September 2013 End: May 2015
This is a proposal for one-time funds to provide graduate fellowships for academically superior students to set a high standard as we initiate a new optics graduate program at MSU. These star students are highly likely to find employment in Montana optics companies upon graduation. They will study in a multi-department, multi-college optics program with the departments of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Physics, and Chemistry & Biochemistry.
By seeding our new multi-department, multi-college graduate program in optics with the very best students possible, this proposal directly addresses at least four primary objectives of the MSU Strategic Plan. The two most directly addressed are Objective I.2 (“Increase work across disciplines”) and Objective L.3 (“Increase job placement and further education rates”). The new optics program will open new pathways for students and faculty to improve the world by working across disciplines. Students in this program will take courses in and be advised by faculty from multiple departments. One key result that will rapidly help MSU meet Metric I.2.1 and Metric I.2.2 is the immediate increase in the number of students completing interdisciplinary programs and the number of interdisciplinary research projects on the MSU campus. This new program also will motivate recipients of MSU undergraduate degrees in engineering and science to enter graduate school and become qualified for the rapidly increasing number of optics jobs in and around Bozeman, thereby directly benefitting Metric L.3.2. The optics program also will leverage one of MSU’s strongest existing research areas (optics) to expand the breadth of doctoral programs and the number of science and technology doctoral graduates, thereby strengthening MSU’s prominence in research and fortify the university’s standing as one of the nation’s leading research universities (Objective D.3).
Funding Type: One-Time Only Funding Base (3-yr Recurring) Funding
  FY13 FY14 FY15 Base ($) OTO Startup ($)   FTE;
Salaries   66000           
Benefits   378           
Materials & Supplies              
Contracted Services              
Other Operations              
TOTAL 66378     
Please comment, if necessary, regarding cost and requirements.

Three one-year fellowships at $22k each, to be provided to superior candidates for a graduate degree in optics. Tuition waivers will be provided by the hosting departments. 

Describe the Proposal

Since 1980, the Gallatin Valley has become home to an impressive and growing number of companies in technologies involving optics and lasers. The figure is a timeline illustrating this exponential growth. Many of these companies were formed by MSU graduates or faculty, and others moved here for the quality of life or to simply become part of the growing Montana optics community. During this same time period, MSU-Bozeman transitioned from employing two faculty members who worked in optics in 1980 to more than two dozen in 2012. As part of the synergistic growth of the Montana optics community, MSU established the Regents-approved Optical Technology Center (OpTeC) in 1995. The activities undertaken through this center have strengthened public-private collaboration and increased the transfer of optical technology from the university to the private sector. The Bozeman area is increasingly recognized as an area of activity with international significance in the broad field of optics. Because of this growth, the local optics industry is now reaching the state of maturity where they need an increased number of employees with highly technical training in optics. The proposed optics degree is an overdue step that will significantly improve the ability of MSU to train top talent for the growing Montana optics industry. 

Bozeman optics company growth (2012)

Beyond Montana, the National Academy of Science recently recognized the critical role of optics as an “enabling technology” and called for expanded cross-disciplinary education in the field of optics, which has long-ago outgrown its traditional role as a minor sub-discipline of physics or engineering (Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation, 2012). This report identified numerous ways that optical technologies benefit our nation and the world, including optical fiber communication networks that enable the Internet, tiny laser diodes that enable CD and DVD players and recorders, compact imaging modules that enable the world’s tiniest cell phones to the world’s largest telescopes, and infrared imagers that enable night-vision superiority for our military. This rapidly growing range of optical applications corresponds to a rapidly growing need for engineers and scientists who are ready to create tomorrow’s optical technologies.

 The proposed Optics degree will prepare students to not only fill jobs in the rapidly growing Montana optics and lasers industry, but also to create those jobs. Currently we train students to work in optics through traditional degree programs in electrical engineering, physics, and chemistry. However, there is a rapidly growing demand for graduates with cross-disciplinary optics training, which can be best met through a formal optics graduate degree. The M.S and Ph.D. optics degrees we have designed will attract students who want an optics degree and would otherwise not come to MSU to pursue graduate study in the closely related fields of engineering and science, despite our already impressive levels of activity in optics. Therefore, the result will be a diversification of the students we currently train through existing degree programs in Electrical Engineering, Physics, and Chemistry and Biochemistry, along with a growth of cross-discipline research and education opportunities.

 The optics graduate degree program has been designed and is being submitted to the Board of Regents for approval in 2013 (this degree and an accompanying undergraduate minor are both on the Regents list of expected degree applications). This program will admit students through the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Physics, and Chemistry and Biochemistry. Admission decisions will be made by the Optics Program Committee, comprised of faculty from the participating departments.

 This proposal is for three one-year fellowships to be used to attract academically superior students to this new program, thereby establishing a precedent of high academic expectations and garnering international recognition of our program. 

Describe the broader impacts and benefits of this proposal

Leaders of local optics companies have told us in recent years that they need us to produce more graduates with advanced degrees in optics and related fields. Bozeman has become a very significant center of optics activity in both the academic and industrial worlds, and MSU needs to increase its educational offerings to maintain and even further strengthen this position. Beyond Montana, there also is strong demand throughout the western U.S. (and beyond) for optics graduates, especially ones trained in the process of designing and building optical systems. This practical focus is, in fact, a feature of our program that will greatly increase demand for our graduates over those from schools that focus only on a few academic sub-areas of optics.

 Rapidly growing demand for optics professionals with cross-disciplinary training also motivates this new program at MSU. For example, MSU currently has faculty members who design state-of-the-art optical sensor systems, and others who use such systems for research in fields including agriculture, ecology, biochemistry, and other diverse applications. The new optics degree program will provide enhanced opportunities for these faculty members to work together with graduate students who become trained to work and communicate across these disciplines. 

Funding this proposal will immediately enable an increase in the quality and number of graduate students enrolled, which should lead to an increase in the number of STEM graduate degrees awarded at MSU. 

Implementation Plan

During spring 2013 we will form an Optics Program Committee, chaired by the Optical Technology Center (OpTeC) Director, and including one faculty member from each of the three participating departments (ECE, Physics, Chemistry & Biochemistry). In summer 2013 we will hire an Optics Program Administrative Assistant to start in fall 2013 with advertising and student recruitment. We will advertise the new program in leading magazines of the optical science and engineering communities starting in fall 2013. The first round of applications will be processed in winter and spring of 2013-2014, with the first star students offered fellowships to enroll by August 2014. 

Assessment Plan

We will conduct formal surveys of the students who receive these fellowships, and track their accomplishments at MSU and after graduation. We also will track recruitment success in the first years of the program to see if there is evidence that the fellowships accomplished the seeding that we intend. 

If assessed objectives are not met in the timeframe outlined what is the plan to sunset this proposal?

These fellowships will be funded on one-time money, so if there is not sufficient evidence of success in this effort, it will simply end. If, however, there is evidence of success, we will pursue other routes to establish longer-term fellowships to maintain the ability to continuously recruit star students into the optics program at MSU. 

Department Head: Rob Maher (
Dean/Director: Brett Gunnink (
Executive/VP: Tom Mccoy (