Montana State University

MSU adds new master's degree, minor in laser and imaging optics

March 7, 2014 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Joseph Shaw, Montana State University professor in electrical and computer engineering, works with a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) laser at MSU’s engineering complex. Starting next fall, Montana State University will offer a master’s degree and a minor in optics and photonics, emphasizing one of the university’s strengths. Approved Friday by the Montana Board of Regents, the programs will build on Bozeman’s growing reputation as a center of creativity and commercialization in the field of laser and imaging optics.  MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham.A green laser beam used for taking atmospheric measurements pierces the night sky above the Montana State University campus in Bozeman. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham

Joseph Shaw, Montana State University professor in electrical and computer engineering, works with a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) laser at MSU’s engineering complex. Starting next fall, Montana State University will offer a master’s degree and a minor in optics and photonics, emphasizing one of the university’s strengths. Approved Friday by the Montana Board of Regents, the programs will build on Bozeman’s growing reputation as a center of creativity and commercialization in the field of laser and imaging optics. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – Starting next fall, Montana State University will offer a master’s degree and a minor in optics and photonics, emphasizing one of the university’s strengths. Approved Friday by the Montana Board of Regents, the programs will build on Bozeman’s growing reputation as a center of creativity and commercialization in the field of laser and imaging optics.

The new graduate program would attract graduate students who are looking for that next step in laser and imaging optics and photonics and would otherwise not come to MSU, said Joseph Shaw, professor in electrical and computer engineering and director of the Optical Technology Center.

“We see this as continuing a three-decade long process of pushing MSU and Bozeman into the forefront of some of the most exciting innovation and research in the field of laser and imaging optics,” Shaw said. “By offering graduate-level studies in optical sciences, we will be adding significantly to the intellectual capital coming out of MSU that has been a big part of growing an optics economy in Bozeman.”

The opportunities on campus will come with Shaw and the Optical Remote Sensor Laboratory, as well as in the SPECTRUM Lab and with multiple professors in physics, chemistry and electrical engineering. To expose more MSU undergraduates to the field, Shaw said MSU will also offer a minor in the optical sciences. Both programs of study will encourage cross-disciplinary activity among three departments – the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Physics and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

More than 15 years ago, MSU decided to pursue opportunities in lasers and optics with strategic investments. Aided by a National Science Foundation grant, the university built a significant program in laser optics at MSU through strategic hiring. Additionally, the university founded the Optical Technology Center, or OpTeC, as an interdisciplinary research and education center. OpTeC hosts annual meetings where industry and university researchers share ideas.

Over the years and thanks in part to MSU’s investments, the Gallatin Valley saw the creation of 32 optics-related companies over the past decades, with 15 of those companies having been started by MSU graduates. Bozeman is now home to twice the number of optics companies per capita as Tucson, Ariz., which is widely regarded as a major center of the optical industry.

Shaw said offering graduate-level degree options, as well as a minor, is another strategic move that allows MSU to complement and expand on its strong faculty and research activities in the fields of optics and photonics. The new master’s degree and minor will leverage the university’s growing national reputation for producing top graduates in these fields.

“The quality of our undergraduates is already something that is well known within the Bozeman cluster of optics companies,” Shaw said.

Larry Johnson, who founded the optical tech company ILX Lightwave in Bozeman in 1986 and sold it in 2012 to Newport Corporation, said he loved hiring MSU grads.

“If it sounds like I’m biased (to MSU) it’s because the results were that our employees who came out of MSU had top-notch technical skills and were really just better in terms of overall work ethic,” Johnson said.

Johnson is president of the Montana Photonics Industry Alliance, which has him focused on supporting and growing the cluster of Montana companies working in laser and imaging optics. Johnson said the MSU’s investment in a graduate program only enhances its reputation and continues to raise Bozeman’s profile as a place to start or move such a company.

“In terms of supplying the kind of people companies need, MSU has done a fantastic job, and this would be another positive step in that regard,” Johnson said. “Certainly the university has benefited from its fantastic students, who often come to Bozeman with a Montana-born independence and an ability to tackle tough problems. And MSU has added key ingredients to the mix, a great faculty with matching facilities that has MSU doing world-class science in these areas. It’s a winning combination.”

Contact: Joseph Shaw, (406) 994-7261, jshaw@ece.montana.edu.