Montana State University

Optical scientist Joe Shaw to deliver second lecture in spring Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series

February 6, 2017 -- By Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Joe Shaw poses with aurora borealis images in his Cobleigh Hall lab at Montana State University. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN – Joe Shaw remembers standing at a bus stop in Tucson taking in one of the city’s vibrant sunsets, the clouds a palette of iridescent colors. Then a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona Optical Sciences Center, he noticed how the clouds’ colors changed when he took off his sunglasses. Despite his increasingly advanced work in optics, Shaw didn’t understand why the colors had changed and became frustrated by his lack of knowledge.

“I decided right then that I was going to learn everything I could about natural optical phenomena, because I knew there was so much out there that I didn’t understand,” said Shaw, director of the Montana State University Optical Technology Center (OpTeC) and professor in MSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering.

Determined to be “that guy” people went to for answers about what they saw in the sky, Shaw studied books by top optical scientists and conducted his own research.

“I started investigating and photographing those colors and eventually, I was publishing papers on this subject,” he said. “From that frustration as a Ph.D. student to today, in the intervening decades, I’ve finally become ‘that guy.’”

Now a renowned optical scientist, Shaw will present “Optical explorations of nature,” the second lecture in the spring semester’s MSU Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. Shaw will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. A reception will follow.

A Bozeman native, Shaw will discuss how keeping his head in the clouds has led him to a highly regarded optics career that has taken him from the tropical islands of the South Pacific to the most frigid regions of the world and from hunting invasive lake trout in Yellowstone National Park to hunting weeds in the grain fields of Montana’s farmers.

He will also show and explain photographs of auroras, halos and other colors and optical effects that he has observed from his airplane seat during his frequent travels. These photographs, along with descriptions and viewing tips, can be found in his recently published book, “Optics in the Air: Observing Optical Phenomena through Airplane Windows.”

Shaw, who joined the MSU faculty in 2001 and was named OpTeC director in 2004, develops optical sensors – both imaging and laser systems -- to make measurements in the natural environment to help solve practical problems.

The bulk of Shaw’s work throughout his nearly 30-year career has been developing optical and infrared instruments to measure clouds for climate studies. This work led him to an early-career discovery that the then-existing climate models were incorrect because they underestimated the greenhouse effect of the water vapor.

“That was shocking, because that was pretty basic science that was thought to be well in hand,” Shaw said. “We worked with the scientists who developed the computer models to fix them and verify that the change was correct.”

In 2000, the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland recognized Shaw for the discovery with the Vaisala Award, given for outstanding contributions to meteorological instruments and methods of observation. The prestigious award came just two years after Shaw received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE, for his work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The PECASE is the highest honor the United States government bestows to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. 

“I would say 60 percent of what I still work on is related to measuring clouds,” Shaw said. “They’re important for the climate problem, solar energy and earth-space communications, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about them.”

Shaw’s fascination with photography and imaging led him to improve the capabilities of low-cost infrared cameras after the government declassified the technology in the 1990s. This room-temperature imaging technology revolutionized the thermal imaging field and set the stage for Shaw’s work in developing imagers and lasers to solve a host of diverse problems, including helping growers map herbicide-resistant weeds and beekeepers measure bee populations without disturbing the hives.

Rob Maher, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said that even with Shaw’s status as an internationally recognized authority in optical science and engineering, one of his most distinctive traits is his “innate and joyful curiosity.”

“Joe approaches each problem as an expert learner, eager to discover how he can close the gap between what he knows and what he wants to know,” Maher said. “I particularly admire the way his curiosity and enthusiasm rub off on others and I really enjoy seeing the students in Joe’s lab reflecting his spirit of inquisitiveness.”

Technologies developed at OpTeC have spun off dozens of optics companies in Bozeman, creating a high-tech industry that previously didn’t exist. For this accomplishment, the University Economic Development Association (UEDA) awarded OpTeC the “talent development” award, which focuses on the partnerships needed between a university and industry to meet workforce needs, according to the UEDA.

“So much in our modern world is optical,” Shaw said. “People don’t realize that if we took optics out, our world would go back to medieval ages -- or at best, to the 1950s. Optical and laser technology has revolutionized our lifestyles, and sometimes we’re not even aware of how much.”

The son of an atmospheric scientist who would wake him late in the night to view planets or stars through a telescope, Shaw’s childhood was heavily influenced by the Apollo landings and his father’s hobbies in astronomy and photography.

When he was 8 years old, the family moved to Alaska where Shaw became entranced with the region’s solar and atmospheric phenomena.

“I landed at the Fairbanks airport in June and it was close to midnight, but the sky was bright and I remember how novel that was,” Shaw said. “Six months later, the opposite extreme occurred when the sun was hardly ever up and the sky was painted with the aurora borealis for much of the night.

“I just fell in love with that.”

Despite these early influences, Shaw wasn’t overly interested in science; his true passions were music and photography. When it came time for him to choose a college major, he chose music.

After a life-altering stint as a missionary in Japan, time spent playing in different bands and marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Shaw decided to return to college. Ironically, it was his love of music that led him to major in electrical engineering by way of a class in amplifier design.

“I used to build my own speakers and equipment because I didn’t have the money to buy them new, but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said. “So, I thought I should take those classes to understand what I had been trying to do all those years.”

Despite a weak math background, Shaw “plugged away, step by step,” with the goal of getting a degree in a field that would support his family. When the curriculum touched on optics, he discovered a niche that reflected his interests in telescopes and cameras.

“Everything I was learning related to what I was doing with my camera,” he said. “I was understanding it better and taking better pictures and then I started studying things in the atmosphere and taking pictures of them and trying to understand what I was seeing. It all sort of blossomed.”

Shaw shares his experience with his students, encouraging them to find a way to connect their passion to their major and to be willing to work hard.

“That was the magic sauce: taking my passion and sprinkling in a dose of discipline,” he said. “It could have taken me in a variety of directions, but it took me in this direction and I’m very happy with it.”

The Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series recognizes outstanding MSU faculty for their scholarship and leadership. Neil Cornish, professor in the MSU Department of Physics in the College of Letters and Science and co-founder of MSU’s eXtreme Gravity Institute, will lecture March 7.

Contact: Joe Shaw, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, joseph.shaw@montana.edu or (406) 994-7261

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